In my last post I discussed fanfiction, both the pleasures of reading it and the pleasures of writing it. Well, for one of my classes I am writing a fanfiction-y chapter of a book called A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan:
This, coincidentally, is the book that was assigned for today's Please, Please Me class (the class that I am writing this blog for). So, I figured I would post my chapter here. I know this isn't about Twilight but I have had a crazy few weeks and this story has been taking up a bunch of my time.
The book A Visit From The Goon Squad is a novel that is made up of a bunch of short stories, each from the perspective of a different character at a different point in time, that all tie together when taken as a whole. Even though the book is a novel, many of the chapters have been published in The New Yorker as stand-alone stories. While I highly recommend reading the entire book, in order to understand my chapter, one must only read this New Yorker story entitled Found Objects. It is the first chapter of the book and my story will make much more sense if you read it. Read the linked story first (or the whole book, really. More things will make sense if you read it all, although only the first chapter is necessary... although I guess not even that is really necessary...) and then read the story that I have posted below. I'm finding this hard to explain for some reason. It will make sense when you read it I guess. Anyway, here it is!
The Lost Chapter
Elaine hadn’t slept through the night in almost twenty years. In the beginning she could never be sure if she had ever truly woken up, the only clues being the faint memory of climbing out of her bed and using the toilet, and the moist hand towel lying rumpled next to her sink.
She remembered the first time she woke up completely. It was when she was pregnant with Aden and somewhere, probably miles away, she heard the faint whine of an ambulance. Elaine remembered jerking herself awake, entirely convinced that she had crushed Aden in her sleep and the ambulance was meant for him. It wasn’t until she heard Patrick’s light snoring next to her that she realized the absurdity of her dream, but for some reason the panic that she felt on that night never truly left her.
Perhaps it had something to do with becoming a mother. Once Aden was born every creaky pipe was suddenly his cry, every dripping sink was him falling out of his crib, and every twig scratching the window was the heavy footstep of a child-snatcher. And even when Aden grew up and no longer needed his mother to worry for him, Elaine still managed to find things to worry about. Aden had a habit of staying up late and listening to loud music that sounded like death, and in the middle of a REM cycle, Elaine was certain that it was. And Patrick’s snoring was surely sleep apnea, as Patrick had put on the baby weight that Elaine had managed to take off in the years since Aden’s birth. Elaine found herself waking up three times a night simply to check that Aden’s music was just music her husband’s snoring was just snoring.
Even now that Aden had moved out and Elaine hadn’t shared a bed with Patrick for nearly three years, she found herself waking up every night to the silence she had always feared, only to remember that the house was silent for a reason.
Since Patrick moved out, the number of hours of sleep Elaine got per night had reached an all-time low. She would wake up five or six times a night and every time she did, she would spend up to an hour lying on her back trying not to picture Patrick and his new anthropology professor of a girlfriend having sex in the professor’s office. Patrick and Elaine used to have office sex before they were married, but even in the category of office sex the professor had Elaine beat because surely Elaine’s tiny, cluttered, windowless Minnesota office was nothing compared to the professor’s bright, spacious, New York City office.
But of course, once Elaine tried not to picture her ex-husband having sex with his wispy new girlfriend, she couldn’t think of anything but. And sometimes, when the noise of their grunting and panting got to be too much to bear, Elaine would flick on light that sat on her nightstand and walk across the carpet to Patrick’s old stereo. Patrick had bought himself a swanky new one when the divorce was finalized, leaving Elaine with the dusty old one that had a busted left speaker and a cracked volume dial. Elaine once felt a surge of sadness whenever she looked at the stereo, but the sadness had been replaced by a stirring of pleasure ever since she started her ritual, which went like this:
She would start by putting a Conduits CD into Patrick’s stereo and pressing play. Then, Elaine would sit on Patrick’s side of the bed and use his old pillow to masturbate until she felt both physically and emotionally exhausted. A Conduits song had been playing on the radio the first time she and Patrick had sex and it always made her smile to think that she was defiling herself where he once slept, while listening to the same song on the same stereo from their first time. It was like using Patrick’s own weapon against him.
Elaine liked to imagine him feeling something, a faint pressure in his chest perhaps, when she performed the ritual. And the best part about it was that after completing the ritual she almost always slept straight through until morning.
This small act of defiance, when she chose to do it, was the highlight of Elaine’s day. When she realized this, she felt sadder than she had ever felt before and cried into Patrick’s pillow until it was wet to the touch, and then she kept crying out of anger at having let herself cry so much. Right before she fell asleep she resolved to do something about her fucked-up life once and for all.
“When was the last time you performed your ritual?” Lawrence asked Elaine during one of her biweekly therapy sessions.
Elaine took a sip from the glass of water that sat on the apothecary table, the centerpiece of Lawrence’s office. “Three nights ago,” she responded, fiddling with the coaster so that the little picture of The Empire State Building, which was rotated slightly in relation to the coaster, lay as parallel as possible to the edge of the table.
“Can you think of anything that happened earlier that day that would have caused you to feel like you needed it?” Lawrence asked.
Elaine shifted her position on the couch. Of course she knew what had happened that day, but it was so trivial in hindsight that she felt silly confessing it to Lawrence. Patrick had tagged the professor in his Facebook status. There wasn’t anything grotesque about it. There were no smiley faces, no little animated hearts, he didn’t even refer to her by a pet name. To be honest, she didn’t even remember what it said. She just remembered it was small and meaningless, something that she would have once taken for granted, a token of affection between a man and a woman, that now belonged to somebody else. “I don’t remember,” Elaine replied to Lawrence.
She had lied to Lawrence so often that she had perfected the art. The trick was to avoid looking directly into his eyes, as one would an eclipse. Instead, Elaine forced herself to focus on the reflection of the room in his large, circular glasses. If she did this she could convince herself that he had asked her an entirely different question. “What did you eat for breakfast on the morning of August 3rd, 1981?” or “What is the square root of three-thousand fifty-two?” And if she failed to avoid eye contact she would have to answer honestly, something she could hardly even do when she was alone in her room.
Sometimes it felt like Lawrence could tell when she was lying and when she was telling the truth, but he never said anything. He just sat at an angle in his arm chair, one leg crossing the other, and scratched his reflective scalp with chewed-up Bic pen.
“When was the last time you spoke to Aden?” Lawrence asked Elaine after “mm-hm-ing” to himself three times and then nodding curtly.
“Last Thursday,” Elaine responded.
“And what did you talk about?”
Elaine sighed and tousled her frizzy brown hair. Staring at her reflection in Lawrence’s glasses had made her acutely aware of the fact that she had reached the point in her life when she should really start dying her roots. “We talked about spring break. What his plans were.”
Lawrence scribbled something on a pad of paper and “mm-hm-ed” again. “And what were his plans?” Lawrence asked without looking up.
“Well, he is thinking about going to Daytona with his new girlfriend. Beth something.”
“Aden has a girlfriend?” Lawrence said, looking up at Elaine.
“I guess so,” Elaine said taking another sip of water.
“How do you feel about Aden being in a relationship?” Lawrence asked.
Elaine took a deep breath into her stomach, like she had learned to do during a yoga class that she took once, then let it out through her teeth. “Not good,” she laughed slightly, surprised at her own honesty. She waited for Lawrence to say something else, and when she realized that he wasn’t going to, she continued talking. “Not good at all. It makes me jealous. God, can you believe that? I’m jealous of my teenage son!”
Lawrence stopped writing and looked at Elaine. When he spoke again he used the voice that Elaine always thought sounded like he was speaking to a child. Like he was trying to explain an obvious concept that, because Elaine was so stubborn and stupid, she was simply not understanding. “Elaine,” he said. “Are you just jealous of Aden or are you jealous of Beth as well?” Lawrence asked.
Elaine turned to Lawrence and this time stared directly into his eyes. “Are you asking me if I want to fuck my son?”
Lawrence smiled at Elaine revealing large, graying teeth. “I was not,” His smile broadened. “Do you want to fuck your son?”
“Of course I don’t!” Elaine yelled, leaning backwards into the couch and crossing her arms over her chest.
“Okay,” Lawrence shrugged. “I believe you.”
“Good!” Elaine yelled.
“Why did you get so angry just now?” Lawrence asked calmly. His teeth seemed to be growing larger the more Elaine stared at them.
“Because that’s disgusting!” Elaine said, her voice growing shrill.
“Okay,” Lawrence said calmly, leaning back into his chair and interlocking his fingers. “What about Aden makes you jealous? Not Beth, Aden.”
Elaine was still fuming. “I don’t know,” she said, exasperatedly, and looked at the clock on the wall. Were there seriously still twenty minutes remaining in her hour?
“Because he has plans,” Elaine said finally. “There is somewhere that he wants to be, someone that he wants to be with.”
“Who do you want to be with?”
“I don’t know,” Elaine said. “Patrick, I guess. Aden, of course.”
“What about Dolly?”
Elaine thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, I would like to be with Dolly. Before she went crazy, of course.”
“When was the last time you spoke with your sister?”
Elaine relaxed a bit now that the subject had changed. “Oh, not for a while. Months, I suppose. It’s been hard to reach Dolly since she got out of jail. And when I call, sometimes that Stepford daughter of hers answers and at some point I just stopped calling.”
Lawrence laughed a little. “Maybe you should call her again. Or even go visit her. Maybe you need a vacation.”
“I can’t do that,” Elaine said.
“Why not?” asked Lawrence.
“Because of—because of him,” Elaine said, her eyes scanning the spines of the books in Lawrence’s office. She often wondered if he had read all the books on the shelves. Something about Lawrence’s tired shoulders and sallow cheeks told her that he had.
“Because of who?”
“Oh you know,” Elaine threw her hands into the air and then dropped them on the couch with a loud thump. “Because of Patrick! And the professor! They’re there!”
“Elaine, please refer to her by her real name. Please call her Mindy. Nicknames are for cowards and you are not a coward.” Elaine shuddered. Mindy was such an awful name. The name of a person who would dot her i’s with little hearts and, underline the Mind with the y.
“Mindy, Elaine said with a scowl, “lives there. And if I were to see her then I would probably kill myself.” Elaine looked at Lawrence to see how he took this last comment, and then quickly added “Or her,” when Lawrence raised his bushy eyebrows and threatened to open his mouth to once again reveal his overly-large teeth. “Probably her,” Elaine added also, just to be safe.
“Elaine, New York City is enormous.” There it was again. That voice. She knew New York City was large. Duh, she thought to herself. “Millions of people live there,” Lawrence continued. “The odds of you running into Patrick and Mindy are infinitesimal.”
Elaine made a face into Lawrence’s glasses, which Lawrence either didn’t see or chose to ignore. “I think you should go,” he said. “Visit Dolly and Lulu. I think it could be really good for you to get out of your house, get out of this town, and visit the people you love. The people that love you.”
As much as Elaine hated the idea because it was Lawrence’s, by the time she got home and her irritation towards her therapist had worn off, she was convinced that it was actually a great idea. She called her sister that night. Luckily, Dolly herself picked up and Elaine managed to avoid a robotic conversation with Lulu.
“Laney, we’d love for you to come visit!” Dolly said when Elaine told her the idea. And to Elaine’s surprise, her older sister’s enthusiasm seemed genuine for once. Since she got out of jail Dolly really did seem different. Maybe even better.
It worked out perfectly that Dolly’s current client was going somewhere (she seemed to tiptoe around any details about who it was and where he was going) during the week of Aden’s spring break. Lulu had school during the day, which would allow Dolly and Elaine time to catch up and see the city. By the end of her conversation with Dolly, Elaine was positively looking forward to her trip to New York.
That night, Elaine only woke up once when she thought she heard the front door open. But it was just a cricket chirping outside. She fell back asleep almost immediately.
“Dolly!” Elaine cried when she saw Dolly’s Toyota pull up in front of the airport. Lulu was, of course, riding shotgun with her back perfectly straight and her blonde hair framing her nine-year-old face in a way that made her look almost as old as her mother.
“Laney!” Dolly called out and hopped out of the driver’s seat to wrap her arms around her sister before gesturing to Elaine to get into the back seat of the car. Typical Dolly, letting her nine-year-old ride in the front while Elaine toughed it out in the back.
“It’s so good to see you, Dolly! It’s been so long!” gushed Elaine. “And you,” she said turning to Lulu, “you look just like your mother did at your age!” Elaine had to stop herself from saying “at age twenty.”
Lulu smiled her regal smile and said “Thank you auntie Elaine. It’s nice to see you too.”
“Have you eaten, Laney?” asked Dolly. “I was thinking we could go to Delmonico’s for dinner.” Lulu opened her mouth to protest. “There are always veggie options, dear,” Dolly soothed. Lulu shut her mouth.
“That sounds fantastic,” Elaine responded. “I’m famished!”
Dinner passed with hardly a hitch. Elaine asked Lulu about her school and her friends and Lulu responded with her token poise and grace. Elaine couldn’t help noticing the way Dolly beamed in approval whenever Lulu spoke. Elaine wondered tangentially if she had ever looked that way when Aden spoke.
It wasn’t until they returned to the house and Dolly showed Elaine her pull-out couch of a bed and shooed Lulu off to her room (it was a school night for her, after all) that Elaine and Dolly sat down at the kitchen table and truly talked.
“So really, Laney, why are you here? I have hardly spoken to you in months and suddenly you’re in New York! I mean, I’m not complaining or anything, but as your sister I’m worried about you.”
So says the woman who just got out of prison, Elaine thought to herself. “I’m fine,” Elaine said. “I just—I needed a break. You know, from the emptiness. Now that Aden and Patrick are gone I just couldn’t handle the quiet for another second, you know?” Elaine didn’t mention the fact that it was Lawrence’s idea in the first place. She didn’t mention Lawrence at all, in fact. She wasn’t sure how Dolly would handle the idea of Elaine seeing a therapist.
Dolly nodded and reached out her hand to grab Elaine’s wrist. “Well you’re always welcome here,” she said, moving her thumb up and down across Elaine’s skin like a windshield wiper.
Elaine felt her throat close slightly at this gesture of affection from her sister. She couldn’t remember the last time Dolly had been so loving. Perhaps something about her really had changed since prison.
“How are you holding up?” Dolly asked, keeping her hand on Elaine’s wrist.
“All right, I suppose,” said Elaine. “Like I said, it’s been hard. I didn’t want him to go, you know. It was his decision.” Dolly nodded sympathetically. “Oh and Aden has a new girlfriend. Beth something.”
Dolly and Elaine continued to chat until Lulu came out and complained (without really complaining) that the noise from their conversation was affecting her beauty rest, at which point Dolly pulled down some clean towels from the top shelf of a closet for Elaine and crept into her own room to go to sleep.
The sounds of the city proved to be even worse for Elaine’s sleep troubles than her quiet house in Minnesota. The ambulances that, back in Minnesota, Elaine assumed were meant for someone she loved, sped by every half hour. There were shouts on the streets until four in the morning and she could hear car horns that seemed to increase in volume as the hours crept by.
When she woke up (if you can call it waking up if she never really fell asleep) Elaine was starting to regret the idea of coming to New York.
Once Lulu went off to school, Dolly showed Elaine around the city. The sisters went shopping on Fifth Avenue, which was something that Elaine had always dreamed about doing. But the reality of the experience fell short (doesn’t it always…) of Elaine’s expectations. In her fantasies, she had never imagined that she would feel so intimidated by the prices of the clothes in the windows, and by the glamour of the tall, slender women that passed by them on the street. Dolly seemed to fit in perfectly, despite her gray hair and short figure. Something about the severity of her expression screamed New York in a way that Elaine was certain hers did not. She felt like all eyes were on her. Everyone knew she wasn’t a native and they hated her for it.
That night Elaine tossed and turned once more. She kept sitting up in bed and playing her favorite Conduits song on her old iPod mini in an attempt to simulate her ritual, but the song just made her horny and she felt like she couldn’t masturbate in her sister’s bed with her niece in the next room.
On her fifth and penultimate night in New York she finally thought screw it and shoved her hand down her underwear. It was hard to finish without Patrick’s pillow (the thought of using one of Dolly’s made her sick) but she managed. And as soon as she was done she felt her eyelids instantly begin to droop and the noise of the New York City street became nothing more than a backdrop for the Conduits song that was still playing softly on her iPod.
The next morning was a Saturday and for the first time Elaine was woken up by Dolly scrambling eggs in the kitchen instead of climbing out of bed, frustrated and exhausted, and cooking for herself.
“You slept in this morning!” Dolly said to Elaine. Lulu was sitting at the table elegantly eating her scrambled eggs with a fork that seemed too large for her.
“I guess I am finally used to the noise of the city,” Elaine said to her sister, sitting down and accepting the plate of food that Dolly offered.
“Well it’s Saturday so Lulu doesn’t have to go to school. I thought we could spend the day at the library, maybe find some lunch nearby, since Lulu needs to pick up a book that she has on hold there for a report. What do you think?”
Elaine nodded, having no idea where the library was, but at this point she was used to following Dolly’s lead around New York. Her sister had good taste. That was part of the reason she had once been so successful.
As they were pulling up to the library, Elaine noticed a man with his arm around a woman walking through the revolving doors entering the library. She only saw the couple’s back, and yet something about them felt familiar. Was it someone she used to know?
But that was silly. The more she imagined the couple the more she was convinced that she had never seen him before in her life. The man was large and balding and the woman was tall and (it was hard to tell from the back) pregnant. Elaine racked her brain and couldn’t think of anyone she would know in New York City who would fit that description.
Elaine, Lulu, and Dolly left the car and walked out onto the sidewalk and into the library. Lulu ran ahead to search for the book for her project and Dolly led Elaine to some of the more interesting rooms in the old building.
As they were passing the map room Elaine once again saw the man who had been walking with his arm around the woman, but this time she could see his face. Elaine tripped over Dolly’s heel as she called out, “Patrick?”
The man looked towards Elaine and his expression fell. “Elaine,” he said with a brief nod.
Elaine turned her path away from Dolly’s and entered the room where Patrick was standing. “Patrick?” Elaine repeated. “Look at you! You look—“ how did he look? Well, truth be told he looked awful. His hair (what was left of it anyway) was completely gray and he must have gained over fifty pounds since he left Minnesota. But it was Patrick and she was Elaine, and so, Elaine could barely see any of those things. “You look fantastic!” she said, extending her arms to give him a hug. Patrick begrudgingly accepted it while darting his eyes around the room over her shoulders.
“Patrick?” said a voice from behind Elaine. Elaine spun around and saw a slim woman with a small bulge in her belly. She had long brown hair and intense eye-makeup and was wearing a red peacoat with a thick belt around the middle. “Patrick?” the woman repeated. “Who is this?”
Patrick scratched the back of his head. “Mindy, hi. Mindy, this is Elaine, Elaine, Mindy,” he said, extending his arm towards the women in turn as he said their names.
“Oh,” said Elaine, unable to tear her eyes away from Mindy’s belly.
“Nice to meet you,” said Mindy.
“Yeah,” said Elaine, then, catching herself, she said, "Nice to meet you too.” Then, after a beat, she stuck her hand out and Mindy grabbed it and shook it once before letting go.
Elaine tried to think of something to say, but kept getting distracted by Patrick’s eyes darting around the room, looking at everything but the two women standing in front of him. Mindy placed her right arm around Patrick’s back and rested her left hand lightly on her stomach. Her black shirt contrasted ever-so-intentionally with the glittering ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.
“Well, it was nice to see you again,” Patrick said before spinning around and guiding Mindy away. Elaine couldn’t help noticing that his steps felt a little too quick to be natural.
“Nice meeting you,” said Mindy over her shoulder as she followed Patrick to the back of the room.
“Yeah,” Elaine said to their backs before turning around to greet Dolly’s shocked expression.
“You all right?” Dolly said as she put her arm around Elaine’s waist and led her out of the room.
“I—I think so,” Elaine said, entirely unaware of the question that was asked or the answer she had given.
“Let’s go collect Lulu and head out.”
Lulu was found sitting at a computer on the third floor holding large book with a picture of a map on the cover in her lap. “It’s time to go, Lulu,” said Dolly, walking Lulu over to the counter to help her check out the book. Within minutes they were back on the streets of New York, pretending nothing had ever happened.
Well, Dolly was, anyway. She was chatting about something that had happened to her last time she took the subway, but Elaine couldn’t shake off what had just happened. Her legs felt numb, her hands felt tingly, and she was having trouble swallowing. She found herself relying on the sound of Dolly’s chatter to guide her through the perilous streets of New York, and it wasn’t long before she felt certain that she would pass out.
And once the feelings of shock had worn off she found herself clenching her fists and gnashing her teeth at the thought of Patrick and Mindy raising a child together. I mean, Patrick was almost forty-five! He couldn’t raise a baby! And the professor already had two of her own children to worry about. What did they think of the little accident?
“I need to pee, Dolly,” Elaine said, interrupting her stream of chatter as they walked in front of the Lassimo Hotel. Elaine didn’t really need to pee but she did need to sit down a think somewhere, away from Dolly, away from the Stepford child, and away from the noise and smog of New York City.
“All right. Lulu wanted to get a frappuccino anyway, so I’m going to take her over to the Starbucks across the street. Meet you there when you’re done?”
Elaine practically choked at the idea of a nine-year-old drinking coffee, but she couldn’t help thinking that maybe a little bit of caffeine would loosen the kid up a bit. Elaine fluttered into the hotel lobby and figured her best bet to find a bathroom would be at the back of the adjoining restaurant. Once she found it, she pushed the bathroom door open and threw her purse down on the ledge of the sink before rushing into the handicapped stall, pulling down her pants, and sitting on the toilet.
She hung her head in her hands and could feel herself beginning to cry. Then, fearing that someone may walk in and hear her sobs, she forced herself to pee to cover up the noise.
When she finally regained her composure, she exited her stall and splashed some water on her face until she was certain that Dolly would not notice that she had been crying. Then she grabbed her purse and left the bathroom.
“Excuse me, Miss?” said a voice.
Elaine spun around to see a tall blonde waiter in a black uniform. “Yes?”
“The bathroom is only for paying customers,” he said.
“I just needed it for a minute,” Elaine said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the waiter.
“So what do you want me to do, huh?” shouted Elaine. “Un-pee? Do you want me to give the toilet paper back?” Elaine felt a pang of guilt as she looked at the waiter’s shocked face. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice instantly calmer. “It’s been a long day. Here,” she said, fishing through her purse. “Give me an iced tea.” Elaine opened her purse and fished around for her green leather wallet. “Give me a second,” she said. “It’s in here somewhere.
“Look, ma’am,” said the waiter. “It’s no big deal. Really, don’t worry about it. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll pay.” Elaine started taking things out of her purse and placing them on the table next to her. Elaine felt her stomach drop as her purse began to empty and she realized that her wallet was missing.
Was this some sort of sign? Was the entire city of New York telling her to go home? That she wasn’t meant to be here? That she wasn’t even fit to pee in the city where urine soaks the streets?
She looked at the waiter apologetically. “I’m sorry, it was here a few minutes ago!” Elaine showed her empty purse to the waiter in an effort to convince him that she was telling the truth.
“It’s fine, ma’am. Seriously. You should talk to the concierge about that wallet. It may have gotten stolen. It is New York after all.”
Elaine rushed out of the restaurant in a daze trying to figure out how much money she had been keeping in her wallet. It wasn’t too much, she realized. No more than $100. And she could call the card companies to let them know that her wallet had been stolen. But the real issue was her ID. How was she going to get on the plane tomorrow to get home?
Elaine rushed to the concierge’s desk. He was a bored-looking youth with hair that was somehow simultaneously spiky and greasy. “Sir? Sir! Please!” Elaine cried. “My wallet got stolen! At least I think it did. Can you do something? Call the police maybe? Please?”
“Relax, ma’am,” said the concierge. Something about the way that he said this reminded her of Aden. “Sure, I’ll call the police. But I would go back and retrace your steps if I were you. You may have just lost it”
“Thank you,” Elaine said, exhaling slightly. She turned around to search the lobby. Had there been anybody in the bathroom with her? She thought back and couldn’t remember anybody, but she also hadn’t been paying very close attention.
“Wait!” Elaine said to the first woman she saw that exited the restaurant. She was a beautiful, slender woman with tan shoulders and a young-looking face and an even younger-looking man at her side. She felt a pang of jealousy when she looked at her. “You haven’t seen—I’m desperate.”
The woman looked shocked, almost terrified, at Elaine’s intrusion. The woman grabbed the arm of the man and tried to steer him through the revolving doors at the front of the hotel. “Have we seen what?” asked the man, pulling against the woman.
Elaine felt a pulse of affection towards the man, which made her hate the woman. Despite her current crisis, she couldn’t help thinking that as soon as these two beautiful people got back to one of their homes (probably hers judging by their relative ages) they would have sex. And this uncompassionate woman did not deserve the kindness of the man. “Someone stole my wallet,” Elaine said to the man. “My ID is gone, and I have to catch a plane tomorrow morning. I’m just desperate!”
“Have you called the police?” the man asked.
“The concierge said he would call. But I’m also wondering—could it have fallen out somewhere?” Elaine looked helplessly at the marble floor around their feet. She knew she was acting pathetic and she could feel the beautiful woman judging her. What must she be thinking? Was she noticing the gray streaks in Elaine’s hair? She had yet to get it colored like she kept promising herself she would.
The man guided Elaine to the concierge’s desk and the woman trailed behind. “Is someone helping this person?” the man asked.
“We’ve called the police,” said the concierge defensively.
The man turned to Elaine. “Where did this happen?”
“In the ladies’ room. I think,” said Elaine.
“Who else was there?”
“It was empty?”
“There might have been someone, but I didn’t see her.”
The man then swung around to look at the woman. “You were just in the bathroom,” he said. “Did you see anyone?”
“No,” said the woman a little too quickly. She was clutching her purse tightly to her chest and her eyes were wide and filled with something that looked remarkably like terror.
The man turned to the concierge. “How come I’m asking the questions instead of you?” he said. “Someone just got robbed in your hotel. Don’t you have, like, security?” Elaine felt a surge of gratitude toward the man. If you asked her she would have said that, in that moment, she loved him.
The concierge adjusted his neck and said, “I’ve called security. I’ll call them again.”
Two beefy security guards showed up within a few minutes and asked Elaine a series of questions about her wallet. Elaine answered them all honestly, forcing herself to look directly into their eyes, and when she was finished answering their questions she looked around to see that the woman had left.
“Where did your date go?” Elaine asked the man.
“She went to check out the bathroom,” the man replied. “You should go with her. Show her where you may have dropped it.”
Elaine nodded and hurried back into the restaurant and towards the back where she pushed the door open and met the woman, catching her frantic eyes in the mirror. The woman was holding the wallet in her hand and then hesitated, as though thinking of something to say, before handing it to Elaine. Elaine just stared at the woman, mouth agape, and accepted the wallet.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “It’s a problem I have.”
Elaine opened the wallet and the relief she felt at having found the wallet almost made her forgive the woman.
“Everything’s there, I swear,” she said. “I didn’t even open it. It’s this problem I have, but I’m getting help. I just—please don’t tell. I’m hanging on by a thread.”
As soon as the woman said this Elaine’s thoughts flashed to Patrick and the professor—Mindy—and suddenly she understood. This was the woman’s ritual. Her small act of defiance that allowed her to exert a bit of power over her life. Elaine couldn’t hate this woman. What did Elaine know about the reasons she was a thief? Perhaps she too was left by her husband for an anthropology professor. Perhaps she too was seeing a therapist named Lawrence who had giant teeth and scratched his scalp raw with a chewed-up pen. It didn’t matter because really, the two women were just middle-aged losers trying to get by in New York City.
“Okay,” said Elaine looking down. “It’s between us.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you, thank you.”
Elaine suddenly felt eager to get away and was relieved when there was a knock at the door and a man’s voice said, “Any luck?”
Elaine followed the man and the woman out of the hotel, thanking the woman again for finding her wallet. She laughed to herself as she realized that the man and the woman were probably still going to have sex that night despite what had just happened. She wondered whether or not the man realized that the woman was a thief. Maybe he did and loved her anyway. Maybe he would only find out after she stole something for him. Or maybe he would never find out. Elaine continued to laugh to herself as she went into the Starbucks across the street to catch Dolly and Lulu.
“What took you so long?” Dolly asked.
“Oh I just met a woman that I had a lot in common with,” Elaine said smiling to herself.
“See, not everyone in New York is as terrible as they seem in the movies.”
Elaine laughed in agreement and caught a look at her reflection in a mirror on the wall. Her roots were still as gray as ever, and she resolved once and for all to pick up some hair dye when she got back to Minnesota.
Then, over her shoulder, she saw the reflection of a woman. The woman looked young but exhaustion aged her face quite a bit. She was gripping her coffee cup as though it were the only thing that would get her through the rest of her day and staring blankly at the napkin dispenser on her table. In front of the woman was a half-solved New York Times crossword puzzle with a expensive-looking black fountain pen hooked on to the top of the puzzle. As Elaine watched in the mirror, the woman got up and went around the back of the Starbucks towards the bathrooms.
“You ready to go?” asked Dolly.
“Yes,” Elaine mumbled, still staring at the reflection of the pen.
Dolly and Lulu stood up and walked towards the door. Elaine followed them, hanging a few steps back. Then, before she could stop herself, she reached out and grabbed the pen and put it in her purse. It was time for a new ritual.