Short stories happen in New York City, she had explained to her mother as she stuffed the cheap duffel bag with sweaters. It was the best thing, the only thing for her writing. She could not possibly have moved anywhere else.
Wishing she’d thought it through a little more, now. Her window is a postage stamp of grey brick and clouded sky, steam from her coffee cup melting the frost flowers on the glass. They curl and recede, like the edges of a burning sheet of paper. She clicks open the latches and spreads a thin row of seeds on the outer sill. The seed bag is red, sharp plastic, with a picture of some kind of gaudy finch/lark on the front, a bright-eyed artistic rendering of the ideal backyard visitor. A patio bird.
Bird herself is brown, just brown, with a darker brown beak and eyes like little pieces of dark glass pressed into her face. Bird had to be a her, Joanne had reasoned, because male birds are not brown, plumage being the bird analog of a pair of bespoke loafers or the new iPhone or an expensive watch. Something a woman might notice: pick me; I’m your man. Bird needs only to be small and brown and quick.
Bird is on the sill now, clicking a seed in her beak. Joanne had been amazed at first to watch it, the neat removal of husk from food, with no apparent thought or effort. A pile of millet shells eddies up against her tiny brown claws. Bird tilts her head. Joanne does the same. They contemplate one another.
It’s been five months now, and Bird is still the closest female friend Joanne has found in the city, the girls at work having a certain cultivated unapproachability that chafes against Joanne’s inborn shyness. Apartment life, too, does not sit well with her; she finds the anthill aspect of it alarming, the lack of any clear connection between its inhabitants. She has common ground with someone, she suspects, but finding it would take more digging than she knows how to do.
Bird reduces the line of seeds to a pile of glinting husks, cheeps once, and takes off in a bustle of feathers. Joanne tries not to feel betrayed by this sudden departure. She shrugs on her second-warmest sweater. The wool scratches at her exposed wrists before her mind recognizes it as a constant stimulus and casts it to the back of her consciousness, rendering it harmless.
On her phone, a missed call. Zach.
Something about the name Zach, a nineties skater-boy sensibility, and it suits him; though he wears the Wall Street uniform, there is a sense about him of flannel and limp, overlong hair. It was this flash of immaturity that Joanne had caught when she met him, and that had drawn her to him. He’s, well, fun, in spite of his best efforts to bury it under pressed suits and economic jargon. She worries that it will get to him, and that he’ll realize she isn’t ambitious enough to be a partner or blonde enough to be a trophy wife, and then he will leave her. She contemplates this in quiet moments, steeling herself so that the blow, when it comes, will not be fatal. In the meantime, she is happy to be worth calling.
She pauses with her thumb on the “call” button and thinks better of it, texting instead. Good morning, Babe. Voices make her uncomfortable in the morning. When Zach stays over, he knows not to talk to her until well after coffee, communicating instead in that twinspeak that couples will cobble together, some patois of touch and gesture and mouthset. The thought of learning a new such language, post-Zach, is tiresome and unpleasant.
Not unlike, she feels, this city. Navigating spit-stained pavement to the subway, wondering why she didn’t pick somewhere more manageable, like Portland or Phoenix or even Chicago for God’s sake, where, though it be colder than this, would perhaps have been a little easier to find a toehold. She is reminded of rock climbing in college, of using a pick on the difficult routes, and thinks that this city is a sheer face of scuffed basalt, unscalable as an ice cube.
Cold, she can feel it oozing in at the edges of her sleeves and beneath her scarf, tap-tapping on her bones. Soon her clothes will be futile efforts, and she will need to pull out Warmest Sweater. She shudders at the thought. The turnstile creaks. She has to lean against it with all her weight, which is not very much; she is beginning to beat herself at her own game, a game of willpower, of not-eating. When she starts to look different, she reasons, she will stop playing, but for now the feeling of control is intoxicating. She has moments of sharp clarity, when she gets that hungry, bright splits in her consciousness in which she feels that she might faint or fly.
She clenches her heavy wool coat tight around her, not wanting to betray the presence of breasts on the subway. All these eyes in a little glass box. Eyes everywhere, in this city; it’s hard to breathe. She might be drowning. She lowers her lashes and thinks of Bird, swift little brown Bird, wings outstretched against pearl-grey clouds omnipresent.
Work is a pile of someone else’s words and a steady stream of rejection letters. It hurt, at first, writing them. She knew the form well enough—Thank you, Unfortunately, – and the idea of releasing more Thank-you-Unfortunatelies into the world made her sick. But as she reads all these other words, she realizes that perhaps hers are just a bit better. The shame of thinking this burns, but she is still excited by this shred of superiority. She dashes off another, then announces a coffee run to the girls. A couple of them look up and hand her cash, placing orders so specific she has to get a pen (“Skinny-caramel-latte-Grande-no-Venti-because-I-want-whipped-cream-even-though-it’s-skinny-and-have-them-put-those-little-chocolate-sprinkles-on-it, thanks, you’re a doll”). She shrugs on all fifty pounds of her outerwear and loops the red pashmina around her neck so it drapes over her chest. Buttons the top button. Prepares to shiver.
Then, in the coffee shop, she sees Her. Like electricity when their eyes meet; her shudder is not from the cold. A strange little woman, her age maybe, younger maybe, older maybe, warm beneath no fewer than ten thin silk dresses. The effect should communicate “homeless,” but the fabrics and cuts are too rich for that, and her dark hair is clean and glossy. She must be an artist, blogger, or proprietor of one of the more eccentric boutiques in the area. She is smiling. They are walking towards each other like old friends. Joanne does not know how; her knees feel too weak to support her. When they grip hands, a spark passes between their fingers, and they are slow in letting go.
She wants to fall into those two syllables. “I can’t stay. I only have ten minutes. Here’s where I work.” With trembling hands, offers a business card. “I don’t know if you’re busy or, well, you probably are, but I get off at five if, you know, coffee?”
She is lightheaded on the sidewalk, gripping the cardboard handles of the drink holders. When she hands out the coffee, she flashes a smile that startles her coworkers. They’ve grown accustomed to ignoring the solemn new girl, who never has anything to say unless it’s business and won’t look you in the eye.
One or two of them think that perhaps they ought to invite her to drinks this Thursday. She’d never seemed interested, before.
Five o’clock and Ava is there, at the door, waiting. She’s shed a few of her silk layers and acquired a navy-blue wool coat. When she steps forward to greet Joanne, its full skirt swirls to reveal a creamy satin lining. It’s the most beautiful coat Joanne has ever seen, and she’s gripped by material-lust that she’s sure shows in her face. If Ava notices, she says nothing of the coat’s provenance, motioning Joanne to follow, breathless.
“I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
Ava shrugs. “It’s possible. It’s a big city, though. Maybe I just have one of those faces.”
But Joanne knows this to be impossible; she’s never seen a face like Ava’s before, a face of thin, sharp bones dominated by a beaked nose and glittering black eyes. She guesses Iranian maybe, Italian maybe, Jewish maybe, some combination of lovers whose grandmothers disapproved. Maybe something different altogether: her skeletal lightness seems almost alien.
“So what do you do?” They are seated now. A thin curl of steam rises from Joanne’s cup.
“I’m a thief.”
Joanne laughs, uneasy. “So you’re in finance?”
“No, I steal things.” The line is delivered deadpan, Ava’s expression earnest. “Not from you, don’t worry. I like you.” It’s honesty, and Joanne likes it. She would have liked it if Ava had said she killed people for a living. She would have believed it and smiled anyway, so strong the current that passes between their cupped hands, inches away from one another on the table. She is conscious of the woman’s small boots swinging free, and she lifts her own from the floor, half-hoping they will touch.
“Well I hope they deserve it.”
“Yes. They’ve usually stolen it from someone else, just a little less directly.” When she smiles her top lip lifts over her front teeth, and Joanne notices they lack the neurotic whiteness of the office girls’ neat veneers. “And what do you do?”
“I reject people.”
“You mean you work in publishing.”
“Yes, actually.” They laugh together, then sit in silence, regarding each other with unease and tension. “I had thought I was going to be a writer, once, that’s why I moved out here, but.”
“I don’t know. I’m not even sure what it would look like if I were, and having to send those out every day, telling someone it’s not good enough, it’s discouraging, you know?”
“You don’t think you’re good enough?”
“Well, honestly, yes, but.” Yes, but. She doesn’t have the other half of the conjunction. “And I hate this city. I grew up in cornfields, you know? Space. Rows of plants.”
Ava shakes her head. “I don’t know. The biggest field I’ve ever seen was Central Park.”
Joanne doesn’t know how to respond. She backtracks and switches to the subject of the upcoming council elections, on which Ava is well-informed, though without definite opinion. They discuss this, city politics, until Joanne realizes she has promised Zach she will have dinner with him (and that, yes, she will eat. And not just a salad. Food.)
“I’m sorry, I have to go, I’m having dinner with my, um, friend.” She doesn’t know why she can’t own up to-
“Yeah.” She would blush if she had the physiological inclination. They rise and shake hands, but do not let go. “Let’s do this again?”
“I’m only in town for a couple more weeks. I’m finally leaving, to go see those cornfields, as it were. But yes, let’s, before I leave. Soon.”
“You have my phone number.”
“I’ll find you.” The grip is broken, and Ava sweeps out first, that coat swirling behind her like a plume of smoke.
At dinner Joanne eats without noticing she’s eating. Meat, she remembers now, is delicious, and the heaviness in her gut makes her feel solid, alive. Zach is pleased.
“You writing again or something?”
“Yeah!” It’s not a total lie, she realizes; she’ll type away as soon as she gets home. She feels full to bursting with words.
“I was getting so worried about you. Thought you were getting too stressed. That job of yours is tough.” It’s a kind of inside joke between the two of them; they both know what it’s like to be in finance, in this climate.
“I made a new friend today, a thief.”
“You mean someone else in banking?” He chuckles. Joanne chooses not to correct him.
Before they go back to his apartment, she asks him to stop at her place. “I forgot my pill,” she says. He knows how careful she is about that. Inside, she spreads a layer of seeds on the windowsill. Their round bellies gleam bright as the moon in the paleglow of the city sky.
There is a kind of intense urgency that night. Joanne fears that she is losing him, for sure, she knows it, she just does. Zach wonders if she has met someone else. He buries his fingers in her duskybrown hair and vows to keep that from happening.
The next day, when she reports to her apartment to get dressed, the windowsill is empty except a scrap of paper, wedged in the corner. A cookie fortune. As the River Flow into the Sea, somethings are just Meant To Be. On the back, Learn Chinese: Love. Ai. (She has always suspected these translations to be inaccurate, though whether the error is on the English or Chinese side she can’t be certain.) Bird has a sense of humor, Joanne decides, though she is not sure how she knows this.
She is positively cordial to the girls at work. They bestow on her some gossip in return and invite her to lunch tomorrow.
Today, she is having lunch (she is sure of it) with Ava. And yes, there’s that blue coat and glittering eyes at the door to her office.
Ava eats so much. Joanne doesn’t know where it goes; it is obvious that her body is hollow-thin beneath her clothes. Joanne feels like she should keep up, making this day two of being fully-fed. It’s not bad, she decides. She still feels light, because Ava is there. In moments of uncomfortable self-awareness, she realizes that she has a crush. A nervous, twitching, middle-school crush. She is desperate to impress the girl. She feels a spiked thrill when Ava laughs at her jokes. She likes to watch the way her mouth moves around a red-skinned new potato.
“Do you want to go to a stupid chick flick with me tomorrow? I’m sure there’s one playing.”
As the days surge forward, the invitations change; art shows, drinks, sales, a tennis match. Joanne is ever-inventive, and Ava always seems to know where to find her and when to meet her. She realizes, after a couple days, that Ava has never once called her. She’s just shown up. Unnerving, but she overlooks it.
Her social stock is skyrocketing at work. The girls mistake her new buoyancy and generalized friendliness for genuine amiability, and suddenly she is included in their cabal of whispers and giggles.
When she writes, the words flow shining and unimpeded.
Bird appears to be making a nest of sorts in her windowsill. She chirps and deposits things there, pretty things: silk ribbons and gold chains, a shred of bright paper that used to be an invite to some upscale party, and more fortunes. To Bet on Today is to Gamble on Tomorrow (Learn Chinese: Always. Yongyuan.) And A true friend is Worth more than Gold. (Laughter. Xiao.).
She senses some disconnect with Zach, but it does not surprise her. She’s been expecting it. Which is a pity. She wouldn’t have minded marrying him. Actually wanted to, if she were to be honest. But she has trouble feeling too sorry for herself. Every time she sees Ava, she feels a swoop in her stomach and a soaring kind of elation.
Ava meets her for drinks late one night after she has dropped Zach off from dinner (“I have to be in early tomorrow.”) She is a little blurry when Ava walks her home, though not too much so to be enchanted by the first snowfall of the year. “It’s like magic, Ava. Just like that.”
They stand at the door to her apartment and watch the flakes dance in the orange of the streetlamp. Ava’s dark hair is jeweled with melted droplets. Her eyelashes spark when she blinks. “This is it. I’ll be gone tomorrow.”
She doesn’t realize they are kissing until they let go of each other. “Come upstairs with me.”
She lays the navy blue coat on the couch. Undressing Ava is like removing tissue paper from a jewelry box. Her skin gleams white, stretched over sharp bones. Her nipples are small and red and hard, and Joanne is struck by the lightness of her thin body as she lays her on the bed. Their hands are everywhere, their hair tangling together on the sheets.
For a flash of seconds that night, detached from her body in blinding white, Joanne knows what it feels to fly.
The next day, when she wakes up, Ava is gone. She has left her coat there, with a slip of paper on top of it. A cookie fortune. The Wise Man can love the Past but Lives In The Present. Learn Chinese: Remember. Jizhu.
She feels that she should want to cry but she doesn’t, somehow. She feels as if some hollow in her self has been filled. Shivering, she shrugs Warmest Sweater on over her naked body. Made from the wool of sheep farmed in some cold region of Hell, the coarse fibers scratch her breasts and exposed ribs, but there is comfort in mundane irritation.
For the next three weeks she will spread seeds on the windowsill, but Bird has gone to see the cornfields, and she knows it.
The next day, Zach will ask her to marry him.
In a year, she will receive a letter that is not a rejection.
But this morning is all the future she can handle, her hands around a coffee mug. She sinks deeper into Warmest Sweater and hums a tune she can’t remember hearing.
Ava ever ever Ava. Somethings. Ai.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Malia Lehrer lives in Wisconsin and studies geology