Origin and History
This story began with a roof. An industrial building in which a friend had constructed a three-bedroom apartment was being demolished, along with 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 where guests on my friend’s roof had roamed a view of three boroughs.
Published by Five Chapters, “All the Summers Ahead” was a finalist for the Alexander Patterson Cappon Prize for fiction and is featured on Longform.
As of October 2019, Five Chapters has been compromised; its pages redirect to a purported tech support site. Below is “All the Summers Ahead,” revised and intact.
All the Summers Ahead
Ellen was having lunch with Abby at Souen on West Thirteenth Street. One of their regular lunches, though in April Ellen had been in L.A. for a shoot, and in May, Abby, done with teaching until summer classes, hadn’t been coming into the city.
“You should move out near us,” Abby said.
Their house—Abby and her husband’s, in New Jersey—was finally finished. On faculty salaries, Abby not tenured until the academic year just finished, 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, to have it morning and night!
“We can be train buddies,” Abby said. “I can pick a Jersey boy for you.”
“I had a principle to never go to New Jersey.”
“It’s different for us. The kids.”
Out the restaurant window Ellen saw the asphalt roof from her bedroom, the gravel beach and barbed wire below it, the surge of the East River to a hundred blocks of Manhattan. Until September. Already, by the building’s front buzzer, a poster announcing a neighborhood named nowhere but in real estate posters covered the name of the couple across the hall—the Hofmeisters—and of the production company Ellen owned.
“Remember how you had a 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 work was being done upstairs? (“Who passes by?” Ellen’s father had said). Twelve years ago. Now Ellen’s apartment-mate and the Hofmeisters had moved out. The sheet metal shop downstairs was closing. 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.”
One of Abby’s summer session students: South African, twenty-one.
“In August I’ll be thirty-seven,” Ellen said.
“She wants to be an interpreter. She makes me feel young, or old, I’m not sure.”
The summer session student was named Caitlin.
“I’m so grateful, you have no idea,” she said on the phone. She wasn’t in town. She was hoping to come directly from the airport to Ellen’s apartment. Two checked bags were all she was moving in. “If we get on, I can give you the whole summer in cash, yeah?”
“All right.” Ellen crossed her legs under her desk, ruling chances with the pleat and flow of 1930s movie slacks style.
Saturday felt summery even at nine a.m. at the shaded end of her living room. She was setting watered plants to drip from the fire escape when gravel spattered from below. On the phone she’d seen Caitlin as short, with dark, bouncing hair, everything about her quick, continually mobile. Leaning out the window she saw through the rungs a tall foreshortened woman with a high blond ponytail, one hand on her hip, one hand shielding her eyes; white peasant top, jeans, suitcase on a leash. Ellen locked her cat, Pearly (more ashy now than pearly) in her bedroom. From the living room, the stairwell she’d shared with the Hofmeisters opened directly to a brown steel door to the street and the scents from the soap factory around the block, today hyacinth as syrup.
Caitlin waved from her waist, cheery flapping waves. Behind her stood a man in work boots, black jeans, thumbs through his belt loops, chest stretching a stained tee shirt printed with the white belly of a cat held vertical from under its front legs. He dropped a square, veined hand past Caitlin to Ellen. “Leif.”
“There are two of you,” Ellen said.
“We just met,” Caitlin said.
Leif was subletting from the Hofmeisters for the summer. He was a lawyer. Might as well do something that pays, right? The sublet was a favor, spur of the moment, nicely timed for him. He was renovating a brownstone his contractors had torn to shit.
“I make documentaries,” Ellen said. “Not as cool as you think.” She was finishing a film about male frogs born with ovaries because of pesticides.
“Hot,” Leif said.
“Really?” Caitlin said.
“I saw it,” Leif said. “On PBS.”
“You saw the Ed Norton one,” Ellen said. “I have field biologists. No Ed Norton.”
“How do you get into movies, anyway?” he grinned.
“High tolerance,” Ellen said. “Do you need help with anything?”
He’d brought two duffels and what he was wearing. Caitlin was getting a mattress delivered on Monday; until then she had a sleeping bag. Leif had bought the Hofmeisters’ mattress. “Come over, we’ll trampoline or wrestle. Totally kidding.”
Ellen had a party to go to that night. In her early years in the building, as evening slanted in, she would have ducked out her bedroom window onto the roof with Joni Mitchell on headphones, the slightly jazzy still folksy albums. She’d had a definite image of someone no longer newly arrived, wise to the city, still in love with situations no longer longed for; someone who listened to Joni Mitchell and knew about people’s parties.
“A lot better.” Caitlin was loud through her nearly closed door.
Ellen knocked, peering in. “My friend Kendrick is having an opening. He does jackets, handbags and stuff.”
Caitlin nodded, finger to her lips. Her wireless earpiece blinked blue. She’d laid out two glittering dresses on her sleeping bag. Ellen’s closet was full of dullness. And she had to be up early to drive out to New Jersey to cook brunch with Abby. She was deciding what to wear to the opening—still—and Caitlin, with no knock, opened her door.
“I invited Leif,” Caitlin said. “I hope that’s okay.”
“Everyone likes a big opening.”
The storefront shone white inside and smelled of paint. Its few racks had been pushed to its back wall, clearing the middle. Kendrick waved from a green glass checkout counter that was doubling as a bar. A woman he was talking with stared at Ellen and touched Kendrick’s wrist. He kissed the woman’s forehead. Caitlin’s laugh glittered through the smoke outside.
A low female voice was at Ellen’s side—Natalie, once one of Ellen’s agency clients, now…. Ellen wasn’t bidding on agency jobs except for cash, between documentary projects. Natalie hadn’t said that Ellen was off her list of producers to call; nor had she called. She wore a black dress backless over an even tan. “Who’s your protégé?”
“My renter,” Ellen said. “A favor. For the summer.”
Caitlin was gesturing to a man on a bicycle. She bent forward, slapped her knees. Smoke was drifting in, clotting in Ellen’s throat. The conditioned air clamped on her bare arms and shoulders. Her underarms dampened. She was wearing a sleeveless turtleneck and had forgotten to bring a wrap. Leif was leaning against a display of aqua handbags, a Stella Artois in one hand, one side of his mouth sucked in, pulling his face after it.
“We can go somewhere,” he said to someone.
Natalie patted Ellen’s wrist. “Did you drive?”
“Knute and I were thinking of going ahead.” Natalie nodded at Caitlin. “Bring her.”
Natalie and Knute were going to set up an after bar at Kendrick’s loft. DJ Abscram was spinning. Kendrick now had an entire floor of the building where he’d had his first show. Ellen saw night become early morning. Someone from Goldman or JP talked about Ukraine and koi ponds. Her interest in koi increased, vinously, and he excused himself and went off with Knute. The windows were full of bridges. She danced with strangers, with Kendrick and her reflection. In early glare, Kendrick cooked breakfast for anyone awake. Bacon, eggs, Béarnaise, Bloody Mary? “It’s up to you, honey. New day? New round?”
“I should collect the kid,” Ellen said. “I have to go out to Jersey in the morning.”
“Poor baby.” Natalie squeezed her hand.
“Lucky.” Ellen bent her fingers to Natalie’s, steadying a steering wheel into diamonds of daylight on a morning bridge.
Sounds from the storefront seeped behind Ellen and Leif and Caitlin into general street-lit dimness and the elevated roar of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Leif prodded sidewalk cracks with his boot toe. “There are three kinds of people. Those who can’t wait for the after-party, those who want to keep a dead party going, and those who can’t wait to go home.”
“I’m becoming number three,” Ellen said. “I am number three.”
“This guy asked me to be in his movie,” Caitlin said.
The guy on the bicycle. His name was Martel.
“As in Charles?” Ellen said.
“He’s riding around Brooklyn,” Caitlin said, “looking for people to be in his movie.”
She pirouetted along the steel curb. She was wearing studded sandals that clicked plastically. “I said he could film his party on our roof. He’s going to have this big party scene. Wouldn’t it be amazing to say it was our roof?”
They’d arrived at the brown front door. Leif had a key. Naturally. For twelve years no one but Ellen, the Hofmeisters and the landlord had keys to the brown door. The Hofmeisters and Ellen’s names were under a poster announcing waterfront views, and Leif was motioning Ellen and Caitlin upstairs. “The roof sounds fucking perfect. Ladies?”
Ellen hated when men said ladies.
“I’m going to text Martel,” Caitlin said.
Ellen wanted to get beers from her refrigerator, and a binocular for Caitlin, but didn’t want to leave Caitlin alone with Leif. She’d never worried about who was on her roof.
“I’ll be one minute,” she said. “Then one drink.”
At the birthday party where Ellen and Abby had met, Ellen had noticed how they matched: height (five-seven) and hair (shoulder-length, straight). Abby was twenty-seven, Ellen twenty-eight.
“Functionally single for the moment.” She spoke with a sense of freedom from consequence that she hadn’t felt when she was actually single. Neil—the first co-worker she’d dated; she had his old job, she told Abby—was in California supervising a commercial shoot.
Abby was starting a dissertation on the accretion of capital to megalopolises. “So I’m super interesting at parties.”
She emailed the next day that until she and Ellen had exchanged email addresses she’d thought she was talking with a Diana. She asked if Ellen would like to come along to a barbeque at the apartment of a professor on her dissertation committee. Ellen saw summer stretch out sign-poled by new acquaintances, a hot, bright blur, a first portion of all the summers ahead.
Abby suggested they meet in the triangle off Carmine Street. Under a milky sky and limp leaves Ellen felt a skip and surge she had no word for but joy. Taxis panted at the Sixth Avenue crosswalk and fluttered her skirt. “Goddamn,” a man on a bench said. Men on benches beside him muttered over shopping carts over-brimming with bottles and half-shredded water spotted bags. Ellen stood on the far corner of the triangle from them.
“Sorry I’m late.” Abby was suddenly behind her, fingers hooked through the string of a cake box. “So glad you came. I need a woman to talk to at this party.”
“Will you know a lot of people there?”
“I’ll know Marcus.”
“People are named Marcus?”
“Didn’t I tell you? It’s his party.” Abby was lucky he’d agreed to be on her committee. He was newly tenured, generally considered a new star in the department. He lived like a graduate student in a corner walk-up building, on the ground floor.
A wood-paneled back room with French doors out to a shady patio was already so crowded that it was impossible to move through without pushing. Ellen knew no one but Abby. No clients, no former co-workers, no one from college. The kitchen sink and counter were boarded over to make a bar. Up to the ceiling, nautical artifacts jig-sawed so scarcely any wall remained between them: framed water-stained charts, spyglasses, a painting of a wooden ship on fire.
“If Manhattan is a ship, this is my cabin.” Marcus was six foot three or four. He had a large head, small eyes widely spaced, red cheeks beaded bright. He was half Austrian, half English, with that thickening of stubble and neck that overtook men. No thickening of gut on Marcus.
“I brought you cake.” Abby thrust up the box.
“Glad you came,” he said. Which department was Ellen in? Was she in Abby’s program?
“Work!” He gasped amusement.
“I’m a producer, on commercials,” Ellen said.
“How is that?” Marcus asked. “Do you like that?”
“I’m thinking of starting my own little company.” Let him tease. Her idea was bigger than his apartment.
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“Little companies are like roaches. Any old building is filled with us.”
“I mean for a woman.”
Her face must have paused horribly. He looked down and back to her and wetted his lips. “I’m an asshole, I’m sorry. What can I get you to drink?”
The patio was cracked, patched with concrete. Knee-high walls of flat, unmortared stone separated it from patios to the right and left.
“I told my advisor, if I was on Wall Street, I would have made five times that last year. In bonus alone.” A man in a green Hawaiian shirt threw his arms up, scattering the bonus. “Five times. You know what he said? ‘Go to Wall Street, then’.”
He shot a defiant look at Ellen and she realized she’d been staring. She emptied her wine glass.
Inside, Abby paused refilling it. “You’ve been meeting people?”
“A bit,” Ellen said.
“I’ll look around for you,” Abby said.
“Are you matchmaking?” Marcus smiled.
“I may take off,” Ellen said.
Abby felt for Ellen’s shoulder. “I’m a bad friend.”
“No,” Ellen said. “No.”
Marcus walked her to the door. In a bedroom to the right, the shades were down. A woman was kneeling over a man on the bed.
“I think you’re good for business,” Marcus said in Ellen’s ear. He spoke with more of an accent than she’d heard at first. He put extra care on consonants. “You’re right to the point.”
“I’m going to start one,” she said. “I’ve decided.”
“Good.” He let go of the doorknob and reached behind her and pulled her to him, so tightly her breasts hurt. His tongue was thick, gentle, brief. All the way to the subway she walked aware of expelling his air. His whisky warmth clung to her. The train came and she sat, stomach in, spine straight.
By the time Ellen clambered out her bedroom window with a case of pale ale, binocular around her neck, Pearly reluctant in her arms, Leif had three beach chairs set up on the roof. He and Caitlin were doing shots of Makers. Their glasses flashed light from the street and river. So beautiful, Caitlin said. Leif had brought shot glasses. Of all things to travel with! Ellen would have to check for bare spots on her kitchen shelves, though she couldn’t see when he’d had time to search them. “No one goes to New Jersey except to have kids.”
“So don’t go,” Leif said.
“It’s not that easy.”
But it was. In the morning she called late enough so it was impossible for her to arrive as agreed; early enough so that Abby, Ellen hoped, wouldn’t be far into preparations.
“I was out with Caitlin until two,” Ellen said.
“Oh, good—Caitlin took the room, then?”
“My head feels like there’s an iron bar through it,” Ellen said.
“I remember those days. I bought bacon. But I can freeze it.”
“We’re due for lunch. Next week.”
“Can’t do next week.”
Abby and Marcus and the kids were flying to London the day after June term ended. He was lecturing, and the trip was an occasion for the kids to see where their father had grown up.
“So, definitely when you get back,” Ellen said.
“When we get back. Definitely.”
“I could have been there and home by now.” Ellen was sitting in one of Leif’s chairs. Two p.m., her second pot of coffee. The sky was pink all along Manhattan. Leif, behind her, put his hand on her shoulder. She tensed. He withdrew.
“You get to sober up nice and slow,” he said.
“I’m mostly tired.” What had they talked about the night before? Leif had been telling Caitlin about beekeeping. Could Ellen imagine, Caitlin asked, honey fresh from their roof? Leif said they should buy a hive on the Pirate Bay. Ellen had listened stupidly. And in the morning she’d lied to Abby. Not literally, but by implication. Planning the conversation, Ellen had heard Abby agree that starting onto the Turnpike with a headache was asking for trouble. Abby would sound as pained as Ellen felt. Abby despised the Turnpike.
But there’d been no disappointment, no sigh or surge or dip in pitch. Perhaps the briefest silence before saying of course.
After Marcus’s cookout, Ellen met up with Abby frequently. Wasn’t it convenient, Abby marveled, that neither she nor Ellen were seeing anyone?
“I mean for all intents and purposes.” She said she’d canoodled a bit with Marcus after Ellen had left, after dinner. They might have done more but the couch had been occupied and standing up was awkward after a while, and she and Marcus both felt stuffed with bratwurst. He’d seemed shy, hesitant. Kind of sweet. Ellen would be cruel to say what he’d said, done earlier. Ellen hadn’t had a close woman friend in New York in a while. There were clients she enjoyed taking to dinner, but with them she kept to buoyant moods, strong aspirations, definite opinions about design and pop music. Tell Natalie a sad story and next time she brought Ecstasy. It was possible to blur and focus concurrently.
Now there was Abby. Abby emailed: let’s do something! She hadn’t been to the new back garden restaurants on Smith Street, or to Diner. She’d heard the best things about Indian restaurants in Jackson Heights. She suggested a hiking weekend, upstate in the mountains around West Point, before the semester began. She did things like that, referred to the academic calendar with no acknowledgment that Ellen wasn’t also thinking in terms of it and might not know when Abby’s semester began or register what the semester altered in Abby’s ability to be a friend. Ellen didn’t tell friends about upcoming projects at work, expecting friends to bear them in mind. Each window saw its own city.
She and Abby settled on a Friday in August. Abby rented a low gray Ford sedan. Her FBI car, she said. She picked Ellen up at the brown door. Marcus had told her about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, how perfect its rises and curves were at late night speed. Over the morning cobblestones, past brick former factories with rainbow flag windows, past the steaming backs of bakeries and the dumpling factory with white vats of MSG outside, they splashed through a wet intersection—it was always wet; Ellen didn’t know why—onto the expressway. From the high bridge over Newtown Creek there wasn’t a cloud over the swell of Long Island, careening roofs, treetops, a cemetery, oil tanks, barges as tarry soap bars. The next week, Ellen said, she and Neil and two artists from work were giving notice and starting their own business.
“Are you terrified?” Abby asked.
“I have this fear it won’t happen and in a year I’ll be getting other people’s lunches.”
“If you are, you’ll be getting them for your business.”
“Do you know I earn three-quarters the salary Neil earned to do the same job?”
Neil had said that he might have been more aggressive than she’d been in negotiating salary and bonus. Or more obtuse, mistaken for being worth as much as he thought he was. The surest way for Ellen to earn what she was worth, he said, was to produce jobs that Neil and the two artists from work would do. She wouldn’t be negotiating what she was worth but what three creatives with hot reels and incentive were worth, and she’d shown—Neil had seen—that she produced clean jobs. Neil wanted to shoot film, experiment with high definition video, entire commercials, not product shots and celebrity mug shots and extra footage that directors assigned to him, flying off to their next shoots. Ellen had said that she, too, wanted to direct. He explained: “I want to direct,” the phrase, was a joke. Why then, she said, didn’t he mind saying it?
“I have specific things I want to do,” he said.
“So do I.” She hadn’t argued hard. He was a name that clients trusted and recognized.
“I need more of a business sense,” Abby said. “Marcus says I need to sell myself. He thinks you’re smart. He thinks there should be more women in business.”
“There are,” Ellen said. “A lot.”
“They leave to have babies. They leave or work half time, and they’re out.”
Ellen knew clients who worked from home several days a week to be with their toddlers. They had classic sixes on the Upper West Side or six bedrooms in the suburbs, and nannies and caterers for parties where Ellen arrived less expensively dressed than the babies brought out for guests to admire.
“I suppose people want this.” Abby gestured to the hills. They were low, steep, so thickly treed they seemed to bound away, a broccoli wake the Thruway lazed north between, dotted with late morning windshields. “Have you talked about it with Neil?”
“God, no. Not yet.” Ellen was aware of measuring an answer she might hold herself to later. They all leave to go have babies. Why did that phrasing surprise her, like finding out someone with no irony called him or herself an Objectivist? Why “they,” not “we”?
Abby and Marcus were going to continue to live in the city. No question. Ellen reclined her seat onto the Tappan Zee Bridge, past yellow suicide hotline call boxes. Upriver, white sailboats flocked to the center of the broad water, tacking, riding, no wakes visible from the bridge, sails billowed taut, each boat moving so slightly relative to other boats that their ensemble seemed constant as the car made an oblong orbit of it onto a mile of bridge a few feet above the river.
“One thing I’m proud of.” Ellen had incorporated solely in her name. The two artists wanted to be paid as independent contractors. Neil would be as well, or else would be Ellen’s employee.
“Fun!” Abby said.
Neil had been in California, the day that Ellen was filling out the papers. Calls to the IRS before eight a.m. got through to agents with no wait time. Over the phone Ellen was told an ID number that was valid to use right then, before she received a printed certification of it. The agent, Mrs. Drummond, got a slight dip in her voice when Ellen said there would be two names on the certificate of incorporation.
“And if I decide to go alone?” Ellen had said.
“The IRS cares about the number, that’s it.” Mrs. Drummond said. “But you’ll want to know who you’re incorporating with before you file the certificate with your state.”
Ellen told Neil the next day on the phone. “I was thinking you’d want to be free to direct.”
“Because that’s what men want,” he said. “Zero responsibility.”
“You know I don’t think that.”
“What do you think?” He’d emailed later that he understood. She’d felt that she had to decide while she had the agent on the phone. He would be an independent contractor as the artists were. The artists, Neil and Ellen would be one company from clients’ point of view, and Neil would be free to make whatever arrangements best suited directing. He was sorry if she felt hurt by his words or tone on the phone. He’d seen Ellen and him as partners and had needed time to consider that she’d decided well.
In the car on the Tappan Zee Bridge, Ellen had seen all along her own name unaccompanied on documents visible across the upriver expanse from the bridge where there was no stopping except with traffic.
Ellen had seen herself and Caitlin happening to cook together in the longest sunsets of the year. Caitlin would tell about South Africa. They would plan shared meals. Ellen was fairly easy-going about food except for entrails and imitation meat.
“I think gents like Leif can’t happen outside the States,” Caitlin was microwaving a frozen quiche. “Have you ever known anyone so relaxed?”
“Guys have things easy.” Ellen was slicing a yellow pepper.
“Leif is easy about everything.”
Ellen wasn’t going to ask, on cue, for examples. Her better paring knife was missing. And Caitlin was gone, back into her room. Caitlin stayed in her room most evenings that she was home, door shut. Ellen heard beats tinny from headphones. It turned out Caitlin was reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Momento Mori by Muriel Spark, and short stories by Nadine Gordimer.
“You can read with music on?” Ellen marveled one night. She’d gone to the narrow bathroom to brush her teeth. Caitlin was in front of the sink, flossing. Two a.m. Caitlin smelled of baby powder. She waved Ellen in. “Music doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“I’m impressed. If I’m listening to music, I’m not concentrating on reading. I don’t mean that you’re not concentrating.”
Why would Ellen worry?
Other things. Three times now Ellen had reached into her kitchen cupboard and missed her skillet or two-quart pan.
“It’s at Leif’s.” Caitlin said he was such a sweet gent. “He doesn’t have a fry pan. He gets the most amazing sausages—”
“Can you bring my pan back?” Ellen said.
“All you had to do was ask.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
The next morning Ellen was awake and done in the shower before Caitlin’s door opened. She made extra coffee. Caitlin sometimes asked if she could take what remained in the carafe. She sometimes didn’t ask, took it and left the carafe empty. She stood blinking in Ellen’s doorway, blowing on Ellen’s deepest mug. “I haven’t thanked you enough.”
Ellen propped herself on her elbows. “I was going to ask you about Martel.”
“What about him?”
“He’s making an independent movie?”
“An internet movie.” Caitlin said that Martel was going to use the Hofmeister’s apartment. As soon as he decided to announce the party.
“If he needs help arranging sound and lighting—”
“He wants it to be spontaneous,” Caitlin said.
Ellen didn’t explain that party scenes weren’t shot at actual parties, that shots had to be blocked out, wardrobes coordinated, exchanges scripted and rehearsed. Caitlin would tell her why Martel was young and right and Ellen was stuck in old dull rules. Caitlin had entered the future, where a kid rode around Brooklyn asking women to be in his movie.
Neil was returning from California. Marcus was finishing his new book. So much to celebrate! Abby made dinner reservations. She would treat Marcus, if Ellen didn’t mind figuring out her and Neil’s share. She kept seeing all four of them together.
Marcus looked older than Ellen remembered. A military haircut planed his face. His few days’ stubble was gray. He shook Neil’s hand, kissed Ellen’s. His smile struck her as pleased with himself rather than pleased to see her, meet Neil. He motioned her to sit opposite him where, he said, the restaurant could show her off to the sidewalk. The waitress brought white wine for him to taste. He offered it to Ellen.
“Round,” she said. “Round is all I ever think to say about white wine I like.”
“Let it sit on your tongue. Let it sit.” He tipped a short, slick cylinder from a seafood platter onto her plate. “An octopus for the businesswoman.”
“How is it?” Abby grimaced.
Ellen tasted it. “Like a tentacle.”
“And how is that?” Marcus said.
“You want to know?”
“Like biting a rubber penis.”
Everyone laughed. All through dinner, Marcus looked at her, Ellen was sure. They were waiting for the bill and he took a derisive tone with Neil. Neil had said that Democrats and Republicans were the same, unless you were gay or wanted an abortion.
“And how many people would you say that includes?” Marcus said. “More than a hundred? Less than fifty?”
“I didn’t say I’m in favor of either side,” Neil said.
“May I tell you something?” Marcus said.
“All you, professor.” Neil put his arm across the back of Ellen’s chair and spooled her hair around his finger. She could tell: he was amused that anyone would think of after dinner conversation as anything except dessert.
“All I hear from you,” Marcus said, “is the American obsession with declaring independence, and a teenage obsession with making certain everyone knows that you’ve seen it all and fallen for none of it.”
“Jesus,” Neil said. “You mean what you say.”
“Not much of a life if you don’t, is it?”
A cab bounced Ellen and Neil down Bowery to Delancey and the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge.
“So that’s the famous Abby,” Neil said.
“I do like her.” Ellen spoke more emphatically than she felt about anything at the moment. She didn’t recall a thing that Abby had said all night. But Neil had classified Abby as Marcus’s accessory.
“Marcus, man.” Neil said. “With an American accent, there is no way he could get away with the shit he says.”
“He’s sleeping with her, you know,” Ellen said.
“And she’s sleeping with him.”
“He’s on her dissertation committee. He’s—older.”
“She knows what she’s doing.”
Across the main span of the bridge, Ellen saw Marcus look at her through the downtown and Brooklyn lights. This is the man you want to be with, he was saying. Aren’t you smarter? Maybe all you want is to be comfortable. Look down and see Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sinatra and Kelly dancing off on a day’s leave. What have you come home from war to make? Down the dark slope onto Havemeyer, Fifth and Roebling, the cab crooked the way home to Ellen’s space, Ellen’s and Neil’s company that had no signed clients yet. She leaned back into Neil’s soft tee and close coffee scent. “Next trip to California, it’ll be you behind the camera.”
“Making someone’s hemorrhoid ad.” His tone more than his words—disdain with no object—stayed with her as the cab flicked in and out of streetlights.
“Your hemorrhoid ad,” she said.
“The thing with hemorrhoids.” He put his arm across her. “They can be chronic.”
Abby phoned the morning after she and Marcus returned from England.
“I realized on the plane—your birthday. I missed it.” She and Marcus needed to have Ellen out to visit. Marcus wanted to see her, Abby said. “It must be years now. And you have to see the house.”
Ellen should have mentioned his kiss the day after he did it, or on her and Abby’s weekend upstate. Thinking about the kiss had felt disloyal, an insult to Abby’s judgment, looks, soul. Why hadn’t Ellen anticipated, dodged, cried out, told him no with unmistakable force? When Abby phoned and said that Marcus had slept over, what else could Ellen say but that she was happy for her? Recounting the episode now, she would leave Abby wondering why, after so long, did the story matter? Present secrets, shame or blame would upset Abby more than Marcus’ long-ago lapse after drinking, an indiscretion of a last unmarried summer. Had Ellen been thinking about it all the years since? What did Ellen want from telling it? To not see Marcus? To be Abby’s friend and not his? To divide a household such as she—Ellen—had failed to make?
Abby suggested the first Saturday in August. Ellen could drive out to see the house, the first guest. The day of Martel’s party. Caitlin said she would love to have Ellen join in. Ellen had made the party possible, after all, and would give Martel’s footage true New York character. “We’re kids, yeah? You’ve done what we want.”
“You’ll have to tell me sometime what it is that I’ve done.” Ellen said she would try to get home in time for the party. She would have said no to it entirely, but then Caitlin could have said it was happening at Leif’s. Pearly could stay safely locked in Ellen’s bedroom. Ellen would have brought him to New Jersey if Abby’s kids weren’t allergic. “Arrive by three, or four; whenever you want,” Abby said. Her nonchalance struck Ellen as not Abby’s sentiment or manner. But then years had passed since they’d met except with reservations at places not theirs that they arrived to from work and returned from to work afterward.
The day was cloudless, wind burnt, a day for a run around the reservoir in the park, ice cream for the kids, a picnic on blankets. Ellen, instead of taking one of the tunnels out of the city, drove up to the George Washington Bridge. Leaves on the light ends of branches fluttered over the steep shadows of the Jersey side, vacation leaves, noticed when leaving town, exiting normal time to neighborhoods where she knew no routine.
By the time she pulled into a driveway behind Marcus’s Audi, the neighborhood—Abby’s directions had been excellent—was visibly in late afternoon. A wide deeply-treed street, most of the houses from the 1920s, slate roofed, small, colonial-style, similar to what Marcus and Abby must have torn down to build theirs. He stepped out of the front door motioning to her to stop; or, since she was stopped, to stay where she was. He bore a bit of a paunch now. He opened the passenger side door and sat on Ellen’s maps. “Abby’s running down the rug rats. I need some things. Mind driving me?”
What could Ellen say but no, not at all?
The town was easy to get around, he said. “It’s still for people who live here. You might think Americans would notice that they like sidewalk cafés, and maybe build towns again instead of shopping plazas. You should buy a place down here.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to buy anywhere.”
“Here.” He spoke sharply. “Right.”
They’d come to an intersection. He was pointing so slightly and at waist level that Ellen would have had to be looking at him instead of at the road for his pointing to register as a direction he meant for her to follow. She veered across an oncoming turning lane onto what turned out to be the continuation of the state highway she’d been following.
“I was thinking about you,” he said. “I’ve been approached about doing a film.”
She was glad because Abby would be proud, and she was glad purely. Day was descending into August gold. Let all be calm, all well. The highway became Main Street, parking metered in mottled plane tree sun. Houses had been converted to shops with plate glass windows.
“Park anywhere,” Marcus said. “Stop!”
Ellen stamped the brake. She saw no sudden cars, no kids or bicyclists crossing. “What? What’s the matter?”
“Back up,” Marcus said.
A tall blocky SUV was closing fast behind them.
“There was a space.”
“On the other side.”
“You could’ve made it if you’d wanted.”
“I’m not going to back up the middle of Main Street.”
“Do what you want.” He trigger-thumbed the release button on the parking brake. They passed a pizza joint, a laundry, a café with flowered curtains, an ice cream counter, a plastered building with no windows, a long banner with Greek letters hung in front from a third story cornice.
“A theater?” she asked.
“You don’t like me, do you,” Marcus said.
“What kind of question is that?”
“You think I’m an arrogant bastard.”
“I can let you out right here.” She kept her speed steady, her gaze ahead.
“Deep down, you know you envy me.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Ellen said.
Something was coiling, humming on line.
They were cordial through dinner. Marcus asked Ellen whether to open red or white wine , which to grill first, chicken, burgers, or bratwurst.
“Always with the bratwurst.” Abby pinched his bicep.
Ellen followed her into the kitchen. All that was left to do before serving dinner was to slice the tomatoes that Marcus had complimented Ellen for finding behind so many halfway rotten ones. Abby had the counter lined with plates, carrot sticks, olives, crackers, mustard, salsa, a bowl for pits (remember, she said, the olives had pits). There was no clear space where a second person could work. Ellen sat at a high stool pulled up to a short peninsula, and fit her wine glass between corn chips and vegetables and three colors of dip. Abby’s shoulders had a mounded forward slant that Ellen hadn’t noticed at restaurant tables and before and after walks.
“Do you ever see Neil?” Abby asked.
“We’ve emailed.” Ellen had found him online. He was in Santa Monica, a producer for effects shots on movies. Maybe with live action mixed in with effects he felt he was directing. Ellen hoped so.
“He was a good egg,” Abby said.
“He sloughed off so much. Jobs were about what he wanted to do.
“Sloughing off sounds refreshing.” Abby had a smile in her voice.
The rear lawn projected a trim green semi-circle into a dark audience of trees. Fireflies, moths and the kids—Anders and Emma—played along its edges. Overhead, a pair of bats darted across and under each other. Ellen sat on the patio steps, out of the smoke that poured from the grill when Marcus unlidded it. “Come count fireflies, Auntie Ellen,” Emma called, and Ellen walked out barefoot to meet her.
Abby brought a cheese platter from the kitchen and pulled the screen door shut. “Here we are, then. Thank you for driving Marcus around on his little errands. Especially after that drive to get here! We’ll have cornbread in five minutes, and I was able to marinade the chicken, and read to Emma a little.”
This, somewhere like it, was where Ellen would have said she saw herself at this age, if anyone had asked her ten or fifteen years before. Not because she wanted it. It was the horizon, New Jersey seen from the West Side, inevitable as sunset, and she was headed imperceptibly toward it or somewhere like it unless she worked against it, moved faster than prevailing motion. Some people, Kendrick and Natalie, maybe, saw across different rivers, or none, but Ellen and Abby and Marcus and Neil shared the one Abby and Marcus had passed over. For them it was out of sight behind them and they were at rest in the green space where Ellen was a guest. The lawn was dark now, almost uniformly under the trees, except where skin and clothing punched holes, Emma darting, Anders running a simpler path after her, Marcus at the grill, Abby, hands on hips, smiling into the chirping darkness toward neighborhood children dinging handlebar bells on unseen streets.
“I left Pearly with Caitlin,” Ellen said.
“I’m so glad Caitlin worked out,” Abby said.
“She’s having a party tonight.”
“You should have told me. We could have rescheduled.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“I told Ellen about my movie,” Marcus said.
“Your movie.” Abby laughed.
“Ellen could make it happen.”
“Sure.” Ellen felt regard for them, Abby and Marcus, diverge, manageable. In lawn chairs they laughed and Abby and Ellen curled their legs underneath themselves and Abby said she never wanted to move again. “I want to stay here, always. With all of you. Both of you.”
Marcus poured more wine. “Can you imagine me doing my own narration? The Nazi socialist communist.”
His book had become somewhat of a phenomenon. If he truly wanted Ellen to make a movie of it, he might be doing her as much a favor as she would be doing him. Abby’s books had a more academic audience.
“People don’t get them,” Ellen said.
“People aren’t interested,” Marcus said. “Shame on them.”
Ellen need never tell about the conversation in the car, how she’d wanted to hurt him.
“I envy exactly one person,” she’d said. “I envy me ten years ago. End of subject.”
Marcus had looked at his hands in his lap. “I’m sorry. Okay?”
For what was he apologizing? She didn’t ask. She never would.
In the morning Ellen’s living room smelled of beer. Her soles stuck to the floor. Bottles crowded the counter, stuffed with cigarettes, half-empty bottles from the crowd that blurred ahead of her gaping effort to converge the noise and the people doubling in from the roof. Kendrick and Natalie moved among them. Caitlin left them, running, and kissed Ellen’s cheek.
“How did you get Kendrick’s number?” Ellen asked.
Caitlin had bought a cake. She’d kept everyone from it until Ellen arrived. She led Ellen by the hand out to the edge of the roof. Ellen leaned on her, whirling from off-ramps and the sharp left turn to where she’d parked under the BQE.
“He’s asked me to move in with him,” Caitlin whispered.
For Caitlin this would be the night she made a movie on a roof and decided to stay in New York. Ellen felt a wish go out for her. “As long as you feel safe.”
“You can’t imagine.”
As if she and Ellen had confided all summer.
Ellen had grown unused to morning sun from Caitlin’s bedroom. She brewed a mug of coffee, microwaved milk for it and ducked out her window to the roof. Sunday morning, the city never quieter. Expressways slunk down beyond the gravel wash of the tide, the quiet she’d listened to for twelve years, the same each morning and never the same twice. She could try out life in a river town. She could rent a house. Up the river past the George Washington Bridge, the Tappan Zee. Professors on leave rented out houses for a semester, a year. She phoned Abby on the tide of the idea. “What was the town we stayed in after hiking?
“We went hiking?”
“The summer we met.”
“How do I have no memory of this?”
“We never went back; I don’t know why. You know when you think something is the first of many and then it turns out to be the one time?”
“Yes!” Abby said. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Photos and composite: Sarah Malone