This story began with a roof. An industrial building in which a friend had constructed a three-bedroom apartment was being demolished, as were most of the buildings adjacent. In illustrations of apartments that would soon be available to lease, parties crowded on glass balconies with views across the street to identical balconies. Guests on my friend’s roof had roamed a view of three boroughs.
Ellen was having lunch with Abby at Souen on West Thirteenth Street. One of their regular lunches, though Ellen had been away in April, and then Abby, done with teaching until summer classes, hadn’t been coming into the city.
“You should move out near us,” she said.
Their house—Abby and her husband’s, in New Jersey—was finally finished. On professors’ salaries they’d needed several separated years to do the things they wanted done. Abby admitted to suburban aspirations: yard, space, school. Ellen understood. But to take on that distance between day and home and to have it morning and night!
“We could be train buddies,” Abby said. “I bet I can pick a Jersey boy for you.”
“I had a principle to never go to New Jersey.”
“It’s different for us with the kids.”
Out the restaurant window Ellen saw the asphalt roof from her bedroom, the gravel beach and barbed wire below it, and the surge of the East River to a hundred blocks of Manhattan. Until September. Already, by the building’s front buzzer, a poster announced a neighborhood named nowhere but in real estate posters, and covered the name of the couple across the hall from Ellen—the Hofmeisters—and of the production company Ellen owned.
“Remember how you had a company name before you had a company?” Abby said.
It was true. When Ellen had moved in, the landlord said why not make up a name to show anyone passing by that art was being made upstairs? (“Who passes by?” Ellen’s father said). Twelve years ago. Now Ellen’s apartment-mate and the Hofmeisters had moved out. The sheet metal shop downstairs was closing before Labor Day. The landlord was offering Ellen raw space in Bushwick, and you couldn’t find raw space just anywhere anymore.
“As if raw space is what I want at this point,” Ellen said.
“So for the summer I have a roommate for you.”
Excerpt edited 2018.
Photos and composite: Sarah Malone