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 up her legs that reminded her, with each step, that she was young and alive and going somewhere in this world.
They hailed a cab at Second Ave, zipped on to FDR, and headed south into the Village. Their first stop was at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar they stumbled into together on one of their first nights in New York after meeting, and then ditching, a couple of NYU law students. Annie’s eyes widened at the drink prices, but Kaitlin placed a hand on her wrist and said, “This night is on us.” They stayed for two drinks before heading to KGB, then Boiler Room, then, drunk and arms linked, they took a long nostalgic walk around Tompkins Park. The entire night, Annie wondered how she could possibly live anywhere else but here.
Finally, at two in the morning, they caught a taxi home, the smell of alcohol pouring off their skin like perfume, their arms and shoulders sticky, pressing against each other as they talked too loudly in the backseat of the cab. Inside, they yanked their shoes off and made gin-and-tonics. Kaitlin stretched out on the couch, her eyes heavy with sleep. Annie and Hannah sat in the dilapidated easy chairs against the window overlooking the street.
“Dad helped me buy a place in Nokomis,” Annie said. “It’s really cute. On the weekends, maybe once a month, he comes down and helps me do work. We re-stained the floors last month. I don’t know if we’re going to do anything this summer. I mean, I love it, but I’d like to just live in my house, you know?”
Below, the heavy gears of a delivery truck reverberated in her ears.
“It’s nice having my own place.” Annie stared out at all the rows of lit windows across the street. “But it’s hard not to feel that I’ve settled somehow. I didn’t think I would miss being here so much. I’m really lucky to have my job back home, and I really don’t regret taking it. I don’t know. I guess I’m just wondering.”
“I couldn’t imagine going back. It’s so Midwestern. And look at this one.” They looked back over at Kaitlin, asleep now, her mouth agape, her hands tucked neatly into her chest as if in prayer. “Remember how long it took her to sleep through the night when we first moved here?”
“I never really adjusted to this place. I know I could now. I’m different. More mature.” Annie turned back to Hannah. “I think I might want to give New York another shot.”
A silence fell. Hannah took a long drink from her glass, and the ice cubes rattled when she set it back down.
“I bet it’s easier to get married in Minneapolis,” Hannah said. “You wouldn’t believe how many thirty-five-year old women in this city have never been married. They say it just sneaks up on you. One day you’re all Carrie Bradshaw, and the next day, you realize you’re never gonna have those two kids until you find a guy, and there’s just no one out there.”
“I don’t care about that,” Annie lied. “To tell you the truth, I feel like I needed to figure myself out first, decide if I wanted to stay there or come back here.”
Hannah contemplated her with an expression Annie couldn’t understand. Annie looked back out the window. She could feel the trains shaking beneath the city.
“Of course, we’ve got some time,” she said.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get married,” Hannah said, staring into space. “It’s just so much trouble. You see these women walking through Manhattan with their twins in a stroller, and you just know they had to get shots in the ass for years in order to conceive. And all these women are forty! So old! I mean, what happened to their careers? They’re just at home all the time? I don’t know. I never really thought about it until I got here, and now, the idea is just so bizarre.”
“I could always sell my house.”
“Weren’t you seeing someone? What was his name?”
“Jason. He got jealous because I got a raise and a promotion and made more money than he did. Sounds silly, but he really had a problem with it.” Annie frowned at her hands. “I feel like I’m never going to have sex again.”
“You’ll never have a problem finding that here. Just smile and toss your hair: that’s all it takes for some of the assholes you meet at bars. I was seeing a married guy for a while. That’s not a bad way to go.”
“What?” Annie said. “Wait, who?”
“Just some guy. I didn’t work with him or anything. It was only a couple of weeks, and then I decided the fun was over and broke it off.”
“How could you do that?”
Hannah shrugged. “It’s really not that big of a deal.” She finished her drink and set the glass down with a satisfying clunk on the coffee table. “Kaitlin, you still with us?”
Kaitlin’s eyes opened and then closed, and she rolled away from them and faced the cushions. “Annie,” she said. “Take my bed for the night. I’ll sleep here. Just throw a blanket on me.”
“Sleep sounds good,” Hannah said. She draped a throw blanket over Kaitlin, then stood and stretched her sinewy arms towards the ceiling. “I’m off to bed. See you in the morning.”
Annie took her drink to the kitchen and dumped it down the sink, and then chugged two glasses of water and refilled her glass before she crossed the tiny apartment and closed the bedroom door. She shouldn’t have sounded so indignant at Hannah’s affair. So she slept with a married guy: so what? But, frankly, it did bother her, and if that made her parochial and old-fashioned and Midwestern, so be it. She didn’t want to feel shocked and offended, but the fact of the matter was she was shocked, she was offended. People just shouldn’t do things like that. She flipped off the lights, casting the room in gray and black shadows. In the dark, Annie stripped off her dress, leaving it crumbled on the floor, pulled on her Badgers t-shirt, and then slinked into bed, falling immediately into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
The shoot was in the Four Seasons, and the writer met the girls in the lobby. She had a long forehead, and a haircut and glasses that screamed expensive; Annie couldn’t remember the name of the reporter who had interviewed them the first time, but she knew it was a woman, and vaguely, she recalled liking her, wanting to be her, even though she had no interest before or since in journalism.
On the twenty-third floor, they were led down a hallway that seemed to zig and zag endlessly, and then they entered a room filled with people. It was an executive suite, complete with a bar and kitchen, and two opposing bedrooms. Everyone wore vaguely haggard looks, as if they had been drinking all morning. They were all women, and Annie realized she had been dreading the idea of changing outfits behind closed doors, the precise and cold gaze of a male photographer. The room was stuffy, and all around them, massive photo lights stood like scarecrows; cables and cords to computers and equipment lined the floor like snakes. Annie’s feet ached, even though she was in flats and had been told in advance someone else would select their wardrobe. That hadn’t happened the first time. The first time, the girls were told to wear whatever they wanted, and the three of them had spent all weekend racing through all four floors of the mall, their mothers indulging their every whim, insisting that, as long as the price tags remained on, they could buy whatever they wanted.
The wardrobe coordinator frowned when she saw them. “I thought they were taller.”
Annie lemoned her lips, a hot flash traveled down her neck and burned on her chest, and she knew she was making the expression that got her nicknamed “Mouse” in the first grade.
The coordinator narrowed her eyes. “Not a problem. I can work with them.”
Annie twisted her gaze into the kitchen: coffee and pastries and fruit lined the marble counter, and last night’s alcohol flipped in her stomach. Kaitlin touched her elbow and whispered in her ear: “You’re gorgeous.” Annie loved her for saying it, hated herself for needing to hear it. She smiled tightly and crossed the room for a cup of coffee.
She stood watching the coordinator choose their outfits. The coordinator sized them up, arms akimbo off her hips, pursing her thin lips tightly, then reached into one of the four long and full racks of clothes and grabbed an item seemingly at random. She only needed three attempts to find something for Kaitlin, selecting a lavender dress and a slim leather belt. She smiled at the coordinator the way she would smile at her parents: genuine and open, the oldest in a family of six that Annie had always been slightly jealous of. Everything for Kaitlin came together. Annie knew this wasn’t effortless. Rather, it was a dogged optimism that Kaitlin possessed that if she gave it her best, whatever it might be, things would work out all right for her, and this state of mind that seemed to be so graceful and reflexive, this was the thing that left Annie in awe of her friend, and almost made her forgive Kaitlin for not having called in almost two years.