Annie received the phone call to return to New York on the same day her boyfriend Jason moved out of her house. It had been twelve years since Annie and her two best friends were selected at random by a photojournalist in the Mall of America for a spread in the New York Times Magazine about the everyday lives of teenagers. Her face lit up—she could actually feel the flush run through her cheeks—when she heard the photographer’s name and the reason for the call: a retrospective photo shoot to revisit the image of three thirteen-year-old girls from Edina, Minnesota, applying too much blush and lipstick with their hair straightener cords dangling from the light fixtures, getting ready for their school’s Sadie Hawkins dance.
She refused to not be there when her boyfriend moved out: it was her house, the down payment had been all hers, the mortgage payments had never been shared, and she sensed the possibility that he would take something of hers, accidentally or not, and this threat, however unfounded, felt like a horrible violation. But her thoughts were on New York—wearing Dior and reading Vogue and flashing a radiant smile at photographers and their assistants. Her suitcase was on the top shelf of the hall closet, and Annie wondered how many outfits she should pack for a three-day visit.
The email with a proposed itinerary was still open, the New York Times logo in the signature gleaming like a gold coin, when she sensed Jason hovering in the doorway. She set her laptop down on the coffee table and stood up, folding her arms across her chest. The friend that was helping him move out was not a familiar face, and he had smiled with embarrassment at her presence. She wondered if he was like Jason, the type of man to blame his girlfriend for the fact that he had been out of work for six months. She wondered too if he would decide to cope with this insecurity by cheating on his girlfriend with some slut across the river at Macalester.
“I’m all done,” Jason said.
“If I find anything of yours, I’ll set it aside and give you a call.” She looked out the window at his friend, leaning against the pickup truck, smoking, the sweat glistening off his forearms. “Are you staying with him? Or her?”
His jaw clenched, and his eyes focused at some point over her head.
“On his couch,” he said. “I told you, I’m not with her.”
“It doesn’t matter. You know there’s more to it than that.”
“I know,” he said sadly, and for a moment, she pitied him and how it must feel to have been laid off twice while Annie kept getting promoted. Then he said, “I just can’t believe you’re chucking me when I’m still looking for a job.”
“Are you serious?”
“Whatever.” And he turned and pushed open the storm door, which swung back rapidly, and right before it hit, the hydraulic held it in place, just for a moment, until the door’s weight eased, and it closed with a satisfying click. The truck backed out of the driveway, the items in the bed shifting perilously, and then they were heading up the street, and they were gone. She picked up her phone and dialed her brother.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Great. Can you come over now?”
In ten minutes, Joel and his wife, Bridget, were there. Annie pretended to listen as he explained to her what he was doing as he changed the locks. Instead, her enthusiasm for New York vanished at the mere presence of Bridget. Her sister-in-law had been married to Joel for two years, and she and Annie had never been close. Bridget was Nordic and solid and, while certainly not unpleasing, she was a remarkable switch from the effusive and buoyant type her brother used to date. Bridget smiled tightly at her and asked if she was okay, calling her dear in a condescending tone that made Annie irrationally furious, and remained across the living room, politely disinterested, as if she somehow disapproved of even being in Annie’s home. When Joel was done, he handed Annie the new key, and she wrapped her fingers around it into a tight fist until its grooves stabbed her palm.
“I’ll be right behind you guys,” she said. “I just need to pack a bag.”
“You’re staying at Mom’s?” Her brother’s expression coiled into a grimace, and she pictured what he was like when he was younger, bouncing bars in order to pay his way through school.
“He wouldn’t hurt me. I just don’t want to stay here tonight. That’s all.” His eyes softened, and he was her brother again: more teddy bear than grizzly.
In five minutes, she was packed, got in her car, and followed her brother on the short drive to their parents’ house. She assumed that her mother had told them everything about her relationship with Jason. What they didn’t know, what Annie still hadn’t decided whether or not to confide to anyone, was that she had followed Jason one night, trailing his car like something from a bad detective novel, and saw him leaving a bar with the girl. From across the street, Annie focused on her: tall and curvy, with dark wavy hair and a slim nose, moving with the athletic confidence of a funambulist. Despite everything wrong with their relationship—her budding career and his lack of one, their inability to communicate their fears, their deadening sex life as Jason gained weight from inactivity, the growing disapproval of her parents, her disbelief that anyone else wanted to be with an unemployed twenty-five-year-old like Jason—what hurt Annie more than anything else was this inarguable fact: this new girl was prettier than her.
During dinner with her parents, everyone left her alone, treating her silence as a stage of grief and reflection. All through dinner, Annie focused on those weeks in junior high after the original Times photo came out. With Hannah and Kaitlin, the three of them had walked down the hallways of their school like royalty and held the gaze of not just their classmates but their teachers and parents, too. It was intoxicating to be recognized and known simply for being herself. Even during high school and college, any time she was brought low by a soccer match or poor grades or hooking up with the wrong guy or filling out job applications, the memory of that time could lift her mood like a warm, summer wind, and she would momentarily close her eyes and glide on that feeling of admiration.
She helped her mother clear the table and brought out dessert—brownies, and coffee for herself and her dad—and eased back into silence. She didn’t quite see her parents as attractive, but she knew her brothers were handsome, desirable with their broad shoulders and easy smiles. The memories of their girlfriends drifted through her thoughts: large eyes and long hair, straight white teeth, bodies with just enough curves in the right places to make them seem vaguely like adults. It struck her then that Joel had married a girl who wasn’t all that pretty, not in the sense that his previous girlfriends had been. The beginning of a question formed her in mind, then she brushed it aside like crumbs and sipped her coffee, ignoring her mother’s insistence that she eat.
After, Annie returned to her old bedroom and turned on the desk lamp. She had cleared out the dresser and closet when she bought her house, and these spaces now felt like coffins emptied by grave robbers. Above her desk was a corkboard still covered in high school memorabilia: photos of her soccer team and senior prom, her scholarship letter to Wisconsin, Prince concert tickets, torn notebook scraps with inside jokes scrawled in her handwriting. In the middle, among all the clutter, was the original photograph that ran in the Times. She pulled it down, careful to not damage it further. The three of them were so young—barely into puberty, their shoulders and elbows bony, the serious exertion in their brows and mouths as they tried to look adult and ignore the photographer. They were sweetly unaware of how young they were. She sat down on her bed, holding the photo with two hands, studied her face. It wasn’t until she was in her pajamas and staring at the ceiling that her mother came in and sat on the edge of the bed, and Annie told her about returning to New York.As the plane descended into LaGuardia, Annie leaned against the window, gazing down through the fog into the runways and planes lit by the airport, just like when they first visited during their junior year of college, twenty-one and freshly armed with the developing plan to move here together as soon as they graduated. Her hand tightened on the magazine in her lap, the six dollars she spent on it duly noted in the spending log secured in the inner fold of her wallet. This must be what it’s like, she thought, for the defeated—the politician about to give a concession speech, a salesman who just botched the close, lovers returning from a failed rekindling to the wreckage of their lives. She held the photograph in her hand, its corners rounded, fingerprints visible when tilted at the right angle, smudges all over, a crease between her and her two friends from a moment during their senior year when she was angry with them but couldn’t quite tear it to shreds.
Annie hopped in a cab curbside and caught the driver checking her out when she dipped into the backseat. This brought a thin smile to her lips, a small reassurance that she was still in the same class of pretty as her friends. She removed her compact from her purse and checked if her mascara had gathered in the tiny creases around her eyes, then closed it with a resounding click. She watched the seven-minute news loop playing on the small screen on the back of the front seat, but as soon as they climbed the Queensboro Bridge and she could see the East River, she focused her gaze out at the city, pleased to feel a bit like a tourist again. It was startling to rush through the city, around cyclists and pedestrians, and look up to see the building rose far above her view. When the cab pulled up to the address on East 84th Street, Annie felt as if she had been jarred from a pleasant, unexplainable dream.
She buzzed the apartment, and almost immediately, Kaitlin came flying down the steps. On sight of her old friend, Annie felt a twinge of jealousy: Kaitlin was beautiful. It was so natural, too, with her shapely face and shining smile, as if adulthood had filled her with light. In her t-shirt, Kaitlin’s sinewy arms were the kind Annie never saw at the gym back home: lean, smooth, unfreckled, no fat. When Kaitlin reached her and wrapped her in a massive hug—Christ, she even smelled good—only then did it hit Annie that she had been hoping, all this time, that she was somehow better than her friends.
“You look great!” Kaitlin said. She pulled back, holding Annie in place. “I’m so excited! I’ve told everyone that you’re back for a photo shoot, and they’re so jealous. Remember how they all hated us the first time?”
“Bitches,” Annie laughed. “What do they know?”
“C’mon, let’s go upstairs. Gimme your bag.”
Annie followed her up three flights of stairs, noting that Kaitlin’s hips were slim and she had that upper thigh gap that Annie had never been able to achieve, no matter how much dieting, Pilates, and yoga she tried. She counted how many locks were on their door—three—when they entered. Even just inside the doorway, Annie could sense how small the apartment was, how constricted.
“She’s here!” Kaitlin screamed. She wrapped both arms around Annie and steered her into the bathroom. Hannah stood in front of the mirror, leaning towards the glass with her chin raised, running eyeliner over her lids. For just a moment, Annie was certain that a flash of contempt ran through Hannah’s eyes before she broke into a smile, turning fully to face her, and giving her a strong hug that chilled Annie to her core.
It didn’t take long for Annie to remember why she loved New York. To revel in the endless beeping of taxi horns, the crowds of people moving like oceanic waves through the streets, the variety of faces—so heterogeneous, a kaleidoscope of clothes, expressions, heights, buildings rising and rising into the sky, the rank smell of the hipsters and bohemians mixed with the expensive perfumes and colognes of the rich tantalizing her from block to block, lights of restaurants and bars that never seemed to be anything but full. In part, it was the walking that so captivated her, the constant sense of movement, the steady impact in her heels that rippled u