Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

Over brunch at Clinton Street Bakery on Sunday, Fiona debriefed Tish about what happened after they’d parted ways at the club on B and Third last night. His name was Gabriel—the man whose bed Fiona had rolled out of an hour ago—and after they’d scarfed down cheese slices from Ray’s, she’d climbed the stairs to his spot in Alphabet City, swishing her hips in his face up the three flights. About his penis, she reported: average length, but thick enough so that her thumb didn’t touch her fingers when she wrapped a fist around its base. A notorious size queen, Tish made a gesture of kissing her fingers pressed to her lips, then opened her hand in the air like flower petals blooming. “The sisterhood of hoeing hoes welcomes you back,” she said. “Congratulations, you slut!”

Fiona laughed.

“Now that you got laid, watch,” Tish said. “They’ll start circling.”

“You’re reinstating my membership?”

“Men are like sharks. They can smell another man’s dick on you like blood in the water.”

“He was cute, right?” said Fiona. “I liked that little gap tooth.”

Tish made a noise, sucking her teeth. “You always do this.”

“Do what?”

“You don’t know nothing about him, babe. Trying to fall in love with his teeth?”

“I think he said he was a teacher.” Fiona struggled to remember, but the hangover had her in a haze. “Something with high school kids.”

“In other words, he’s brokety-broke.” Tish drained the rest of her bloody Mary, and raised a finger to get the waiter’s attention. “The sisterhood has you on probation.” She lifted an eyebrow, making Fiona laugh again.

Her Motorola rang, an unknown number flashing across its little window, and Fiona instinctively rejected the call. The smile on her lips died. Where was that waiter? She swirled the last dregs of the mimosa in the flute and tilted the glass to her mouth. The phone beeped, alerting her to a new voicemail. Fiona knew what they wanted. She’d missed the last three payments on her MasterCard, was four months past due to Sallie Mae. Envelopes appeared in her mailbox: late fees and overdraft notices, ballooning interest rates, letters from the collections department threatening Serious Further Action. She ripped up the letters and threw them in the trash, sometimes without even opening them. Then the phone calls started.

Tish asked if she was free Wednesday. “My brother and his little friends are throwing some rooftop party.”

“Where?”

“It might be dumb. I mean, it’s Malik.” Tish rolled her eyes. “But whatever, he said it’s an open bar.” She pulled out her BlackBerry and tapped on the keys. “At that new hotel on Rivington,” she said, then rattled off the names of some DJs Fiona had never heard of. “End of summer, blah-blah-blah…” Tish looked up from her phone and frowned. “Is it really Labor Day next weekend?”

“Shit,” said Fiona. September had come too soon. The woman she was subletting the apartment from was due back in the city November first. After next week, Fiona had only two months left. “What have we been doing with our lives?” she said. There was a joke in her voice.

Tish smiled. “The first rule of the sisterhood—”

“Wait, you said Wednesday?” Fiona said. “I’m supposed to be going on a date.”

“What? Who?”

“The guy last night—”

“Oh come on,” Tish said. “You can just change it.”

Fiona hesitated.

“Girl. You need options in this life,” Tish said. “Blood in the water, remember?”

Fiona nodded slowly. Willy, her ex, had disappeared in May. What had she been doing since? Besides think about him, constantly. Besides imagine that he might show up at her door, “sorry” in his eyes. She wouldn’t forgive him. Not right away.

“Blood in the water,” Fiona repeated.

“And also,” Tish said. “You gotta quit with these artist types, love.”

Tish strictly went after hedge fund managers, I-bankers, the occasional corporate lawyer. Her boyfriends were often older, white. Tish was thirty-one but could pass for years younger—her brown skin as unblemished as any of the high-school girls in their white shirts and plaid skirts riding the subway in the late afternoons—despite her partying ways, the vodka and coke and cigarettes.

The waiter stopped by the table, finally. “Anything else I can get you ladies?” His gaze met Fiona’s for a second, then flicked back to Tish and stayed there.

“We’ve been waiting for refills,” Tish said. The waiter apologized, murmured something about being short-staffed today. She interrupted him and said they might as well take the check.

The waiter was a Lower East Side hipster with skinny white wrists and a Sailor Moon tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. He was around their age, or maybe a few years younger, the skin around his eye sockets still smooth. He drew the slim black folder from the back pocket of his jeans and laid it down on the table. “You probably get this all the time,” he said, his eyes still on Tish. His voice was shy. “People ever tell you that you look just like Tyra Banks?”

Tish exchanged a glance with Fiona before she answered him. “I don’t see it,” she said. “But, okay.” She reached for the check.

“She was in here couple weeks ago,” he said breathlessly, as if divulging a secret. “Wasn’t my table, but—and when you walked in, I thought—”

“What’s the damage?” Fiona asked.

“I got this.” Tish tucked her card inside the vinyl folder and slapped it shut. “You take Amex, yeah?”

“You have her eyes,” he said, soldiering on. “The same skin color, too.” He paused. “It’s a compliment, you know.” The black folder with Tish’s card sticking out of it sat on the edge of the table. Fiona wondered if she should offer to cover the tip, at least. In her pocket there was a ten and a few singles, change from the bodega where she bought a pack of Camels yesterday.

All of a sudden, the waiter’s hand shot out and Fiona watched in horror, time slowing, everything jelly, as his fingers reached for Tish’s hair, which hung in long twists over her shoulders, down her back.

“Boy, I swear to God,” Tish’s voice cut through the jelly—

The waiter dropped his hand in mid-air. Fiona realized she was holding her breath. She picked up the black folder from the table and practically shoved it at the waiter. He looked down at it stupidly, then grabbed it, as if remembering himself. “Be right back with this,” he said, and walked away.

“Fuck out of here,” Tish muttered under her breath. She leaned back into the booth.

Fiona touched her shoulder. “You okay?”

Tish didn’t answer.

“Tish,” she said. “Hey. You want me to talk to the manager?”

“I’m fine.” She fiddled with a bra strap that had escaped her shoulder and slipped down her sleeve.

Fiona didn’t know what to say. “I thought he was hitting on you,” she blurted out.

“What?”

“Sorry—I thought—”

“I’m fine,” Tish said. “Girl.” She shook her head, screwed up her face in a quizzical expression. “He was so gay, hello?”

“He was?” Fiona said.43e43

“You think he’s still going to bring our refills?”

“Doubt it. He seems a little—”

“Yeah,” said Tish.

A few minutes later the waiter sailed by to return the check with Tish’s card. “Hey, so I didn’t charge you for the drinks.”

“Oh,” Fiona said. “Thanks,” she added after a second.

“You’re welcome.” He gave a quick bright smile and left to fill another table’s water glasses.

“You’re still in the running,” Tish said to his back, just loud enough, “to become America’s next top waiter.”

Fiona fell out laughing. “Don’t leave him any tip,” she said.

“I should,” Tish said. “But then you know he’ll be like, black people—”

“But he tried—oh God.” Fiona shook her head.

“Anyway, babe. Listen,” Tish said. “Back to this Gabriel person. Whatever you do, don’t let Rico Suave wife you up. Have fun with him…”

Fiona braced herself.

“…I just don’t want to see you getting caught up like last time—with Willy—”

“I know, I know.” Fiona dragged herself out of the booth. Slipped the shades that were resting on her head over her eyes. Tish knew a little bit of what went down. She didn’t know all of it, though. “Let’s not get into all that, please? I just can’t—”

“You’re still getting your money back from him, right?” Tish asked. “When’s that motherfucker going to pay you?”

Fiona wanted to go home, sleep off the rest of her hangover. Her phone rang again. Another unknown number, an unfamiliar area code. There were times when she thought it might be Willy, calling from his new phone. He’d have an explanation that would make sense of everything, turn her life right-side-up again. In those few seconds, before her embarrassment flooded in at how stupid this seemed, Fiona felt her heart beating hope, hope, hope. She said goodbye to Tish outside the restaurant and they walked in opposite directions down the sidewalk.

Last night at the club, Fiona had figured that the gorgeous brown-skinned man on the edge of the dance floor, a hungry grin on his face, meant to approach Tish. He wore a gray tweed newsboy cap, the brim tilted to the side. Soft dark eyes with heavy lids, a closely cropped beard with meticulous edges. Fiona was surprised when Gabriel had sidled up and placed a hand on the small of her back, gently, and asked her her name. His voice had air in it, like wind caressing leaves, coaxing them to fall. Later, when the rest of the girls said they were dipping out to another bar, Fiona stayed behind. “Use a condom!” Tish had whispered in her ear before giving her a slap on the butt, like a coach sending a player out on the field.

At brunch, Fiona didn’t let slip how nervous she’d felt, going home with Gabriel. It had been months since Fiona had slept with someone. The first, since Willy. In the dark, Gabriel removed her clothes first, then his own, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Fiona kept anticipating some unpleasant feeling to arise: shame, or disappointment, or even just plain boredom. She felt none of those things, but unexpectedly, a tentative freedom. His mouth tasted like Scotch, and the waxy spearmint perfume of his Chapstick. They fell into the unmade bed that took up nearly all the space in his room, Gabriel muttering between bites of her neck and collarbones about how she was so gorgeous, so damn sexy. Fiona wasn’t really listening. She was remembering something she once knew but had misplaced and then forgotten she’d wanted to find again: that her body was a thing that belonged to her, and no one else.

The afternoon sun was high overhead. Strolling home now, buzzing softly from the mimosas, Fiona’s phone rang with an incoming call. She picked it up this time.

“Ona?” Her mother sounded a little out of breath. “Why didn’t you call me back yesterday?”

“Sorry Mom,” Fiona said. She reached for a lie. “I was just about to—”

“I need your help,” her mother said. Fiona tensed. “I need to borrow five thousand dollars.”

“What?”

“Vitamins,” her mother said. “Business opportunity. I have a chance to get in at this level, but only this week—”

“What vitamins?” Fiona said. “I don’t have the money,” she added. She lit up a cigarette.

“It’s a good investment, Ona. Guaranteed return. I have five thousand saved, I need the other half. Vitamin supplements, everything organic. Collagen, fish oil, top of the line best. A big Chinese investor is backing, and there’s only a limited chance for smaller angels. And we get free samples to try, every month.” Her mother went on, describing the starter kit of discounted products which she could use herself or sell at a profit, how she planned to host living room parties to recruit more investors to her team.

“Ona?” her mother said. “I was thinking, maybe it’s a good time for you to move back. We can be partners. You and Mommy.”

“It sounds like a scam,” Fiona said. “Who told you about this?”

“They have a website, you can go look at the videos. Very professional!” her mother insisted. “I researched everything already. No scam.”

“Mom, it’s a pyramid scheme,” Fiona said. “The people at the top get all the money, and they keep recruiting more and more people at the bottom. Don’t do it, okay? Promise me you won’t do it.”

“How much do you have in savings?”

Fiona stayed silent. She could hear her mother breathing into the receiver, waiting for an answer.

“How is Willy?” her mother said finally.

“Willy? He’s fine.” Fiona tossed her cigarette on the ground and stamped it out. “I have to go, Mom. I’m catching the bus.”

“Are you still smoking?”

“Mom,” she said, exasperated. “I’ll look at the website when I get home.”

“You promised you were going to quit. Why do you lie?”

“I really have to go, Mom.”

“Tell me before Wednesday night, or else I lose my place in line. I’ll FedEx some samples for you to try this week.” Her mother cleared her throat, and it led into a phlegmy cough. Fiona held the phone away from her ear while her mother hacked. When the spell ended, her mother said: “You’re still young, you can make a change, just like that. Think about it. We’ll call it Lin and Daughter!”

More often lately, her mother needled her about moving back to Los Angeles. Both of Fiona’s younger brothers were in college now. Maybe her mother felt empty-nested by it all. Even though Fiona was nearly thirty, she knew her mother didn’t see a problem with her moving back in. What she didn’t know was whether the vitamin-capsules home business stood in her mother’s mind as a real proposal, or whether it was a farfetched tactic to get Fiona packing her bags, shabbily disguised as a cry for help. Fiona couldn’t decide.

Her mother cut a supremely unlikely figure for pushing healthy dietary supplements. She was overweight and pre-diabetic; last year, an episode of gout forced her into a wheelchair for two months. After she got her legs back, Mom switched from Newports to Mild Seven menthols. She cut down to three cigarettes a day, the best she could manage, despite her doctor’s warnings. Still, her mother nagged Fiona all the time about quitting herself.

Fiona kept walking, drifting east toward Gramercy. Eight years in New York City. Her mother had never visited, not even once. And what did she want to show her mother, anyway? Fiona imagined her life, as seen through her mother’s eyes, wreathed in disappointment. The law degree left unfinished, though she was still paying down the loans; a string of attorney-adjacent jobs that didn’t add up to a career. Unmarried, childless. The mess with her ex, Willy. At least her mother didn’t know about that.

Last Christmas, she’d brought Willy home to meet the family. Her mother had read his face and declared him blessed, five seconds into the introductions. “Oh, just look at that intelligent forehead,” she’d said, “and such big, beautiful ear lobes.” Fiona translated loosely: Mom likes your face. Willy was fourth-generation and didn’t speak a syllable of Mandarin, Cantonese, Toisan, nothing. Her mother added, in English, “Lucky. Rich!” Fiona had snorted out a laugh, then recovered by hiding it as a cough. Willy’s business cards, which he had designed himself and printed up at Kinko’s, said he was a documentary filmmaker. He was twenty-eight, a year out of Tisch. He scraped together a living on thin royalty checks from downloads of his MFA thesis, a short doc on Coney Island sideshow performers, along with the occasional DP gig on shoots that paid in IMDB credits, Metrocards, and catered food. His only consistent cash flow came from delivering laundry bundles for his uncle’s fluff-’n’-fold on Henry Street. She had laughed at her mother’s read on Willy’s face, but Fiona also wanted to believe that her mother knew something she didn’t, some greater future for Willy, and for herself. Willy was a hustler, one of the things she had liked most about him. She’d just never imagined that she could be one of his marks.

Fiona curled her lip, angry with herself again for her own naiveté. And after all these years in New York, where she’d learned how to live as if always on guard. She was in the fall semester clinic, the new building on Fourteenth Street, when the second tower fell. That was the first time her mother had begged her to move back home.

This most recent Christmas in LA, she’d invited Jane over one night. She’d introduced her to Willy as “my best friend,” though in truth they’d hardly kept in touch these last few years. A distance between them, Fiona felt acutely, marked by unspoken things, added up. She wondered how she’d face Jane again, if they lived in the same city.

A firetruck blasted its urgent sirens a few blocks up. It was moving away, not closer. Everywhere she looked there were people strolling in pairs, holding hands, filling the street with talk, smiles, heads bent toward each other, knowing nods. Where the sun touched her face, her body, Fiona seemed to feel more and more alone. Cars passed up and down the streets she crossed. Every once in a while, a yellow cab stopped on the corner and someone got out, and another waiting person slid in and slammed the door shut. Her eyes followed a bike messenger riding up Broadway, weaving through the traffic, until she lost him to the distant horizon.

How would her mother read Gabriel’s features, she wondered now. His high cheekbones, the prominent curve of the cupid’s bow on his upper lip, his laughing brown eyes. Did color matter? What fortunes might her mother glean from Gabriel’s burnished copper complexion? Then she shook her head, remembering Tish’s warning about her tendency to settle into relationships, careening from one man to the next. Falling in love with his teeth? It occurred to her that she didn’t even know Gabriel’s last name.

The crosstown bus trundled to a stop at the corner in front of her. Fiona let it leave without getting on, lit up another cigarette. She trudged home and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon tackling the task of switching out her closet, folding up the eyelet sundresses and gauzy peasant tops, setting aside her black linen espadrilles to store in the plastic bins underneath her bed. Fiona forgot about her mother’s crazy vitamin business proposal until she lay down to sleep that night. She breathed in the dark. Five thousand dollars, her mother wanted. She didn’t even have five dollars to spare.

*

Wednesday night, Fiona rushed home after work to get changed for her date. She’d told Tish she might meet up later, depending on how things went. Gabriel had suggested a Cuban place on First Ave, and glancing at the clock, Fiona realized she needed to hurry or else she’d be late. When she was out of the subway and above ground again, her phone beeped with a new voicemail message. She listened to it, walking toward the restaurant.

“Ona,” her mother’s voice rasped. “Call me, okay, honey?” A pause. “Don’t forget, tonight is the deadline.” Another pause. “This is Mommy.”

Fiona stuffed the phone back into her purse and made her way down the block. Gabriel leaned against the wall next to the restaurant’s entrance. He had on the same newsboy hat. There was a slight chill in the air, but it wasn’t cold enough for a proper coat. He wore a black puffy vest over a long sleeve button-down. He waved when he saw her approaching.

They hugged, and she smelled something woodsy and citrus on his neck. Gabriel was taller than she remembered, or maybe the heels she was wearing last time had cut their height difference.

“Glasses,” she said. “Are those for real?” She lifted her hand to his eyes, index finger extended, as if she meant to tap on the lenses to verify he wasn’t wearing a pair of empty frames.

“I’m blind as a motherfucker,” he said. “Astigmatism and everything.”

“Reading by candlelight?”

“Damn, how old you think I am?” he said laughing. “Watching TV like this.” He held up his palms an inch in front of his nose. “Only reason I’m not a NASA astronaut, you know. Otherwise I’d be up there, discovering aliens and whatnot.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“You look nice. Did I say that already?”

“I thought maybe you wouldn’t recognize me…”

“Why?” he said.

She smiled. “We were a little bit not sober the other night.”

“I don’t black out when I drink,” he said. “I always remember everything.” The way he said it made her blush.

They went in and followed the hostess to the middle of the dining room. The walls in the restaurant were painted dark red, and votives on the tables cast dots of light through the room, little fires reflected in the mirrors that hung on the walls. They sat down with the menus.

“My kids are reading Love in the Time of Cholera right now,” he said after a moment. “You know the part when he begs the restaurant owner to sell him the mirror?”

Fiona looked up and shook her head.

“Oh, never mind.”

“Tell me,” she said. “Please.”

“I can see the side of your face in that little mirror,” he said. Fiona turned to the beam next to the table, where an oval hand mirror with an ivory handle hung from a nail in the wood. “So brother is mad in love with this woman, Fermina. She’s married to a rich doctor, he’s doing his thing with other chicks, whatever. But he spots her at a restaurant and after she leaves, get this.” He pauses for effect. There was that gap in his smile. “He buys the mirror off the wall because her reflection was in it.”

“Can I ask you something?” said Fiona.

“Don’t say you thought that story was corny.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Rivera,” he said. “What’s yours?” She told him.

“That story wasn’t corny,” she said. “It’s romantic.”

“Marquez is my dude. Colombianos, man.” He struck his chest with a fist, as if stabbing a knife into his heart.

The waitress came by and they ordered. Fiona asked him if he was from New York, and Gabriel told her his parents still lived in the Bronx, same apartment where he grew up. “Same old sofa, too. Cushions smashed, but Mami would kill you if you try to take the plastic covers off.”

Fiona smiled, thinking of her own mother, how she used to shrink-wrap everything at their house, too. The TV remote, the cream-colored lampshade that hung in the living room, the dining-room chair cushions. Every time you sat down to eat you risked plastic burn. One time Mom had tried to wrap up the Nintendo controllers, but Fiona’s brothers protested, and for once, she’d relented, let them mash away on the buttons with their greasy thumbs.

“You been out here long?” Gabriel asked.

She told him she was thinking of moving back to LA.

“For what?” he said. “Earthquakes split your building in half, crazy.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of New York?” she said. “It’s so humid in the summer, and in the winter, you’re walking around wearing a sleeping bag. For months. Just miserable.”

“I like the seasons,” he said. “We need markers, you know? But worse, no Boricua out there.”

“What about—what’s his name? On the Dodgers?”

“That don’t count. I’m talking regular folks,” Gabriel said. “Plus, I heard people fake as hell in LA.”

“Oh, right. like there’s no one fake in New York.”

Gabriel forked a slice of plantain from his plate into his mouth and chewed. “True, true,” he said after a moment. “But girl, you can’t leave now. You just met me!”

Fiona smiled, and shook her head.

“Why you laughing?” He feigned a hurt expression.

“My mom wants to go into business with me,” she said. “But it sounds like a total scam.”

“What is it?” he asked. “Nigerian prince with a frozen bank account?”

“Chinese people,” she said vehemently, “are way more shady than any Nigerians.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “Word?”

“My ex,” she started to say, but her phone interrupted, bleating its robotic jingle. “Sorry,” she said, reaching into her clutch. “Thought I had it on vibrate—oh, actually—” Fiona pressed a button to silence the ringing. “I’m sorry, it’s my mom. I actually do need to talk to her, for just a minute.”

“Don’t apologize. I get it,” he said.

She stood and made her way toward the entrance, the phone pressed to her ear. Her mother’s voice on the line was asking Fiona for money, demanding it, then pleading. Another deadline, for the next level of investors: “Better deal, guaranteed to make our money back in three months, if we follow all the right steps…”

When she sat back down at the table across Gabriel, Fiona was shaking.

“Is everything all right?” he asked tentatively.

“Want to get out of here?” she said. “I have this bottle of rum at my place. My coworker gave it to me from her trip to Barbados.”

He gazed around the restaurant, searching for the waitress. When he got her attention, he motioned for the check.

Fiona straightened her back. She arranged her mouth into a smile. “You gonna come back later to buy this mirror off the wall?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I already asked them to wrap it up for me. With the flan.”

*

The rum was all gone. Fiona felt loose, giddy. Gabriel stood from the couch and moved toward the bed. He sat down on the foot of it, his knees spread open.

“Get over here,” he said.

Fiona crossed the room. She stood between his legs.

Gabriel’s hands rested on her hips. “Come here,” he said.

“I am.”

“Closer.”

Fiona wrapped her arms around his neck and sat down on his lap. He was still wearing his hat. They kissed a few times, then he pulled back. He looked at her. “You’re lovely,” he said. “You know that?”

She laughed softly. His face didn’t change from its serious expression.

“I’m going to be hungover at work tomorrow,” she said with a sigh.

“Your face,” Gabriel said. “Reminds me of this student I had.”

Fiona stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Vanessa Chang was her name. She died. My first year teaching.” Gabriel shook his head. “It was so weird. She was a senior, solid B student, headed to a SUNY on a swimming scholarship. She had her group of friends, involved in a couple clubs after school,” he said. “Out of nowhere, she jumped off the roof of her building, into the elevator shaft.”

Fiona couldn’t help but to imagine it, glancing toward the window—a dark shadow flicking past, falling too fast for the mind to register a face, a body. Seconds later, a sickening crunch far below.

Gabriel was going on about the memorial service they held at the school, grief counseling for the students, the Halloween costume parade cancelled.

“What are you saying?” Fiona interrupted. “You think all Asian girls look alike?”

“What?” Gabriel said. “No. Course not.” He stared at her. “Why would you even say that?”

“You just said, my face—and her face—”

“I didn’t say nothing like that. You’re putting words—”

“Let me just ask you,” Fiona said. “How many Asian girls have you been with, anyway?”

“What?”

“Like, am I the first? Or do you always—”

“How many Puerto Rican dudes you been with?” Gabriel said. He stood up, forcing her off his lap. “You got some sort of problem with me?” he said. “If you got something to say, say it. Let’s talk about what’s really going on here.”

“Why don’t you answer the question?” Fiona said. She was more drunk than she realized, and she uncrossed her arms and put both hands on the bed, touching something solid to steady herself.

“Look at this place,” Gabriel cried, flinging his arms around. “You got all this nice shit, gold frames for your art prints and everything. Heavy crystal glasses for drinking some fancy-ass rum.”

“This isn’t even my apartment,” Fiona said. “What’s your point?”

Fiona lived alone, a luxury she’d lucked into through a friend of a friend. The apartment in Gramercy belonged to a woman who was away for a year in Florence, conducting research for her dissertation. On what, Fiona didn’t know. Renaissance art? The tall bookshelf in the corner was crammed with oversized tomes on European art history and theories of aesthetics. Framed prints of the Madonna cradling baby Jesus adorned every available wall space. When she’d first moved in, Fiona couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, that the eyes of the various virgins were following her around the studio. Now she was used to them; sometimes she even talked to them, finding sympathy in their long-suffering glances.

“Talking about, my mom wants to invest in this and that. What kind of person just up and drops out of law school, and you can still afford to live like this?” Gabriel said. “You saw how I’m living. I’m thirty-six and I got two roommates, okay?”

“Keep my mother out of this,” she said. “Who the hell—you know what? Just get out.”

“Who owns this place then? Your family, right?” He shook his head. “I get it. You’re rich. It’s not a problem. I got some Chinese students at my school. Only thing is, I see the way their parents look down on me. They think it should be some white dude up there, teaching literature.” He crossed to the sofa, where his vest was slung over the arm.

“You don’t know anything about me,” Fiona said. “Nothing.”

“Oh yeah?” Gabriel said. “Why don’t you tell me something, then.”

“I was lucky to get this sublet, after my ex robbed me of everything.” She felt angry tears rising in her throat, and choked them back down. “I helped him sign up for these credit cards to finance his stupid film project—he said that was how some famous indie director made his first movie—then he maxed them out on shit he could flip for cash.”

Gabriel stood there, silent.

“Another time, he straight-up emptied my bank account.” Fiona turned away to wipe the tears from her face. “And you wanna know what’s really fucked-up? After all that, I got back together with him.” She drew in a sharp breath, and let it out slowly.

In Fiona’s mind something suddenly shifted, and now she was the girl who lay twisted on the ground at the bottom of the empty elevator shaft, eyes wide open, staring up at a square of cerulean far above. But how could she see the sky, smell the rusting pipes and feel the cool concrete against her back, if she was already dead?

Gabriel was shrugging his vest on. He stood with his hand on the door knob. “Why’d you even agree to go out with me?” he said quietly. “You should probably…” He trailed off without finishing his sentence.

The way Gabriel looked at her now, Fiona wished she hadn’t blurted out the whole pathetic Willy saga. She would do anything to get back to the way they were at the restaurant earlier tonight. How he complimented her, and admired her profile in the little mirror on the beam. She saw no way of retrieving her dignity now.

Her favorite Mary was the one hanging next to the front door, who wore a ruby diadem and a deep crimson robe trimmed in gold thread. Her right breast was exposed, and the baby in her lap suckled with pleasure at the nipple. Fiona fixed her gaze on the red Mary hanging by the door now, avoiding Gabriel’s eyes but still holding him in her field of vision, as if preserving him in memory.

He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. The door shut behind him with a quiet click.

“I’m not rich,” she said bitterly. “And you’re an asshole.”

*

At her desk the next day, Fiona opened up a browser to the Jobs section on Craigslist Los Angeles. She scrolled page after page. There wasn’t much. She found a few legal research jobs, similar to what she was doing now, but the advertised salary ranges were often ten grand less than what she was currently paid. For a moment she entertained the idea of returning to law school, like she kept promising her mother. That possibility depressed her even more. She closed the browser window and decided to go for a walk to clear her head.

Downstairs, she headed east toward Herald Square. The sidewalk was wet from an early-morning shower. She stepped carefully over a slick metal grate. It’d been a couple months, and Fiona still felt haunted by Willy’s presence all over the city. Last week she thought she saw him reading a folded-up paperback on the downtown platform as her uptown train slowed to a stop at the 14th Street station. It wasn’t him. The week before, she could’ve sworn it was him hailing a cab in front of that fried chicken joint on west 32nd. Wrong again. Just one of his doppelgängers, another East Asian dude in tight black jeans and an oversized green utility coat, sporting a growing-out fade. Still handsome in her memory, though she hated his guts. With every false sighting, her heart dropped. She recalled the way he plowed the sidewalk, fists jammed into his pockets, shoulders hunched against some invisible impending wind. She scolded herself for wishing, just for a second, that she’d actually seen him.

Fiona shook her head and plucked a cigarette out of the soft pack crushed in her coat pocket, stuck it between her lips and lit up. She fished her phone out of the other pocket.

Her mother picked up on the third ring, her voice scratchy with sleep. “Ona?”

“Oops, sorry, Mom,” Fiona said. “Forgot it’s still early there.”

“I’m awake,” her mother said. “Everything ok? Did you eat breakfast?”

“I can’t give you the money you asked for.”

Her mother was silent.

“It’s not because I don’t want to,” Fiona said. “I looked at the website, and you were right. It’s legitimate.”

“What did I tell you? You think Mommy is such a fool?”

“I’m the fool,” Fiona said, her voice breaking. “I wish I could help you, Mom, but I’m in some trouble—I made a mistake, I trusted Willy, and he—” Fiona stuttered, trying to find the words to explain herself to her mother.

“Willy?” her mother said. “What happened?”

“We split up.” There was nothing to do but to come right out and say it. “He stole money from me. All my savings. Everything I had.”

“Did you call the police? They have to arrest him!”

“It was my fault, Mom. I made a joint bank account, and credit cards…”

“Oh no,” her mother moaned. “Ona. Really? Oh, dear.”

“I’m going to quit smoking,” Fiona said. “I’m getting the patch this week.”

Her mother sighed, and the silence between them stretched long and wide.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” her mother said finally. “But Ona, this isn’t your fault. Okay? I have five thousand dollars. I’ll give it to you. To help you move back home.” A pause. “You can rest for a while.”

“That’s money you were going to invest into your business,” Fiona said. “I can’t take that from you, Mom.”

“Ona,” her mother said. “Last Christmas, I could read it in your face. So much stress. Sadness. Anger. You looked so lonely.” Her mother heaved another sigh. “Take the money. Come home.”

Gabriel had accused her of being rich, and she’d denied it. But here was her mother, floating Fiona a lifeline. Five thousand dollars, until she figured out her next move. She felt shame burning in her chest, tethered to relief, and gratitude. She told her mother she would think about it, but in her heart Fiona already knew her answer.

*

It was Halloween, and Fiona’s last weekend in New York. She and Tish were headed downtown for a party, though neither one had made the effort to dress up this year. On the bench across them sat a sexy Dorothy in a short blue pinafore, white fishnets, and four-inch platform heels, carrying a stuffed Toto in her wicker basket. In front of Dorothy, seven Crossfit types in body stockings held onto the overhead straps, each representing a stripe of the rainbow. They swayed and buckled with the train, attended by an eighth, a redhead wearing a green blazer and black pants. He clutched a black plastic bucket filled with gold chocolate coins, which he handed out jovially to everyone around him. Fiona accepted one and unwrapped the foil.

“I still can’t believe you’re actually doing it,” Tish said. “Who actually leaves New York?”

“You’ll come visit?” Fiona said. “After I get settled.”

Tish sniffed. “If I ever forgive you,” she said.

Fiona hadn’t seen much of Tish in the last month. She was getting serious with her latest beau, a private equities trader. He kept an apartment in Manhattan but lived in Westchester, and that was where he and Tish retired most weekends. Even Tish wasn’t immune to cuffing season, after all.

They hopped off at Second Avenue. As they were strolling up toward the club on Chrystie Street, Fiona recognized a throaty guffaw. It was coming from the barricaded smoking area set up next to the entrance.

“Shit.”

“What?” Tish said.

Gabriel was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt that had been slashed to shreds, and his face was painted in zombie make-up. Strings of blood dripped from his lower lip and down his throat, glistened over his Adam’s apple and disappeared into the neck of his shirt. He was smoking a cigarette with a woman in a kid-size A-Rod jersey and silver hot pants.

Tish followed Fiona’s gaze. “You know them?” she asked. “That bitch looks cold,” she added.

“Remember the guy who freaked out on me?” Fiona glanced over again, and then she wasn’t sure anymore that it was him. She shook her head, and turned away. “Can we please just go somewhere else?”

“But Ari and his friends,” Tish protested. “They have a table. We won’t even have to wait in line.”

Fiona caved, like always. She kept her head down, tucked into the collar of her coat, and followed Tish up to the bouncer. She felt the cutting glances thrown their way by the three white girls waiting at the front of the line, who shifted restlessly from one leg to the other. One of them, whose breasts spilled over the top of her black satin corset like two wobbly poached eggs, sighed loudly and snapped the gum she’d been grinding in her mouth. The other two were dressed similarly in S&M-inspired costumes, vinyl thigh-highs and spiked collars and chain link bracelets. None of the three was beautiful, exactly, but all together, they stood as a kind of advertisement for the club, attracting everyone’s attention who passed by. It was working, too. The line was growing longer by the minute.

Tish and Fiona made their way down a dim corridor that opened up into a large room with a sunken dance floor surrounded by low glass tables and leather ottomans, and along the walls, lined by sumptuous dark booths. They weaved through the crowd and found Ari in one of those cavernous booths. “Babe!” Tish cried. Ari swatted the air, fluttering his hands in his friend’s face. The friend stood awkwardly and shuffled out of the booth. Tish slid in and Fiona sat down next to her.

“Scoot in,” Tish said. To the man standing next to Fiona, she shouted, “Gil, there’s room, sit.” She introduced him to Fiona, explaining his connection to Ari. Fiona didn’t quite catch it, but she nodded as if she had.

“Pour you a drink?” Gil asked, tipping his head toward the bottle of Goose leaning in the bucket. He asked her where she was from.

“LA,” Fiona said. “Actually, I’m moving back there in a few days. Bye-bye, New York.” She found the straw with her lips and sucked. It was mostly vodka. The cranberry rested on top.

“But where are you from, from?” Gil said. “Originally, I mean.”

She hesitated for a moment. “I told you. Los Angeles.”

“Oh, come on. You know what I mean. What’s your ethnicity?”

She turned away a little. Tish and Ari were whispering to each other between kisses. The music from the speakers along the dance floor thrummed. She could feel the bass vibrating in her spine.

“I’m Chinese,” Fiona said finally. “My folks are from Taiwan.”

“Oh, I love Thai food,” he said enthusiastically. “Pad see ew. Tom yom. I can eat it all at level 5 spicy.” He grinned, a pleased expression on his face.

She didn’t correct him.

Underneath the table Tish squeezed her hand. “Let’s go on a bathroom break,” she whispered.

In the ladies they pressed into the handicapped stall together. “Here,” Tish said, and handed her the bullet.

Fiona unscrewed the cap and dipped the little spoon in.

“Ready?” Tish had a foot on the flush to cover up the sound of Fiona’s snuffling.

After they each took two bumps, Tish pocketed the blow and they came out to wash their hands at the sinks.

“What do you think of Gil?”

Fiona looked at her friend in the mirror. Tish had lined her bottom lashes with a shimmery emerald pencil tonight, which made the amber flecks in her eyes pop. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Who cares?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said earlier?”

Fiona shook her head and turned off the tap.

“He’s Ari’s client? Hello?” Tish said. “He’s from, like, a really rich German family. Supposedly they were Nazi sympathizers or something. It’s a big secret.” She uncapped a lipstick. “It’s fucked-up, but whatever, he’s making Ari rich.”

“Isn’t Ari already rich?”

“Flirt with him a little, why don’t you? I know he’s not your usual type, but…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Tish said. “Just that you can try something different. A guy who likes to travel, and can take you on vacations. Someone who owns property.”

Fiona turned to watch her friend apply a coat of deep red to her lips. “You mean I should be more like you, then.”

Tish capped the lipstick and slid it back into her purse. “There are worse things—”

“I’m not looking for a sugar daddy,” Fiona said.

Tish gave a small laugh. “But you’ll sit at Ari’s table, drink his alcohol, right? Do his blow.” She bared her teeth at the mirror, checking for lipstick.

“I don’t care about this place.” Fiona tasted the bitter medicine drips at the back of her throat. She swallowed hard. Her heart was beating fast in her chest. “I just wanted to hang with you tonight,” she said. “I’m leaving and I haven’t seen you at all lately.”

“You didn’t pick up when I called you last week,” Tish said. “It’s not my fault.”

“We could’ve gone anywhere tonight.”

“It’s not my fault,” Tish said. Behind them, a woman stumbled into the bathroom and crashed into one of the stalls, banging the door shut behind her.

“It doesn’t even matter. You’re moving anyway,” Tish said. She shook the water from her fingers and reached for the pile of brown paper towels between the two sinks. “Look. I didn’t know that when I set you up with Willy—”

“Don’t, Tish,” Fiona said. “We don’t have to get into all that mess—”

“Maybe then you wouldn’t be leaving New York like this—”

“Have you talked to him?” Fiona couldn’t help but to ask. “I keep thinking I see him,” she said quietly. “Walking down the street, on the L train.”

“Babe.” Tish turned away from the mirror and faced her. “He’s gone. I didn’t know if I should tell you.”

“What?”

“He moved to Hong Kong,” Tish said. “I just heard about it from one of our college friends this week.”

Fiona shook her head and looked away. She studied the chrome taps, the dark gray marble of the sink’s counter, spotted with water.

“I’m sorry,” Tish said finally.

Gagging sounds rose from the bathroom stall. The woman in there was vomiting. The sound reminded Fiona of the old days, when she used to binge lemon soju beer bombs with Jane and their friend Won Kim. She could almost smell the fry oil that permeated the air in that hole-in-the-wall Korean place. How small her world seemed, suddenly. And Willy. Oh, him. Willy moved to Hong Kong.

“You okay?” Tish asked.

Fiona reached out and grabbed Tish’s hand. “Come on,” she said.

Back at the booth, they found Gil sitting alone, fingering the screen of his phone. “I feel like dancing,” Fiona said to him.

“Oh no,” he said, looking up. “I don’t do that.”

“Where’s Ari?” Tish asked, sinking down in the booth. Gil shrugged.

“You can dance with me,” Fiona said. “I’ll show you.”

She led him to the crowded floor and draped her arms over his shoulders and linked her fingers behind his neck. She felt his hands, tentative at her waist. They dragged and swayed, slowly and without paying any mind to the blaring music, a deep house number with a bright trumpet melody. Everyone else was thrashing about, as if jolted alive by the thumping bass line. Fiona and Gil moved together like this for a while, gently holding each other, keeping the space of an egg between them. And then someone elbowed Gil in his back and he lurched toward her and the gap between them closed, the egg crushed. She pressed into him, and they kept dancing.

Over Gil’s shoulder she caught sight of Tish, shimmying with her eyes closed. Ari grooved behind her, his arms circled around her waist. Fiona thought of all the times she and Tish had prowled the city looking for a good time. She recalled a hotel lounge in the Meatpacking District, high above the black cobblestone alleys, floor-to-ceiling glass, the bar in the corner pulsing white, then violet, then blue, a startling effect on the ten-foot Buddha relaxing next to the coat check. They’d told each other that rubbing the gold statue’s big toe meant good luck, that you’d find excellent dick that night. She thought of the Soho rooftop with the view of the Hudson, the West Side Highway running electric alongside it. Leaning on the stone balustrade, Fiona had watched those two columns of ghostly light in Battery Park beaming up the lower Manhattan sky. She remembered another time, another year, a windowless basement in the Bowery, the underground cave, a giant sweating mass of bodies grinding to Daft Punk, Massive Attack, a rumor whispered that Q-Tip was going to show up for a secret set.

Across the dance floor, Tish opened her eyes. Fiona fixed her gaze on her friend. Under the strobing light, she couldn’t tell if Tish was looking back. Willy wasn’t your fault, Fiona wanted to tell her. He was his own natural phenomenon, my own private disaster, an unavoidable act of God even my mother couldn’t foresee. I don’t blame you, she wanted Tish to know. In fact, crazy as it sounds, Fiona was glad she had met him.

“Want to get out of here?” Gil whispered in her ear. “Trick or treat,” he mumbled drunkenly.

Fiona didn’t want to leave yet. She wanted to stay a little while longer. “Just keep dancing with me. Will you?”

She looked up again, over Gil’s shoulder. Her eyes skimmed over the crowd, and she realized she was wishing once again to catch a glimpse of Willy among them, for the last time. Then she remembered that was impossible now. Tish had disappeared from her spot next to the speakers near the edge of the dance floor. Ari was gone, too. There was no one Fiona recognized in the crowd.

Jean Chen Ho

Jean Chen Ho is a writer in Los Angeles. She was born in Taiwan and grew up in Southern California. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California, where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. She has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Jean is a board member at Kaya Press, an independent publisher of Asian diasporic experimental literature. Her writing has been published in PANK, VIDA, The Offing, Apogee, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, NPR, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, Jean has been awarded scholarships to attend Community of Writers, Bread Loaf, and Tin House. She's received residency fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, and The Mastheads. Jean was named a finalist for the 2017 Cosmonauts Avenue Fiction Prize, and received Honorable Mention in the 2017 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She is at work on a short story collection and a novel.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *