I woke from a sleep so shallow that my last dream lingered with me well into my morning commute. It felt like I was sleepwalking. For a while everything bore a faint watermark from my dream: a purple sky over the cloudy one, TV zombies shuffling among the pedestrians, and cracked needles scattered alongside cigarette butts on my way to the A train.
This was during the very real opioid crisis in America, when people had taken the first strides toward something like compassion. There were ads about Naloxone and Good Samaritan laws on the subway, featuring close-ups of stolid-looking people with wordy personal testimonies under the same umbrella statement of how they had Saved Someone’s Life. Personally, the last big PSA I could remember was the “Got Milk?” campaign when I was a kid, featuring celebrities in full-on glam with ludicrous white mustaches painted above their lips. The difference in appeal was striking.
I was a nanny for a doctor and lawyer on the Upper West Side. They had three girls and a classic six just around the corner from Central Park West. This was not the life I had set out to live, but a film studies degree and my rent share of a three-bedroom in Inwood had brought me here for the moment, and I was grateful enough for the steady money to not mind the work so much. Most of the time I shepherded the girls from one activity to another and sat in waiting rooms with other nannies, mothers themselves with broad thighs and melodious accents who were not shy about letting me know that the girls were cold and needed to keep their sweaters on, even if the older ones had stripped down to T-shirts themselves.
The older girls were in school during the day and the littlest still took a morning nap so there was always an uncomfortable period when I would just be sitting around when Sophie, the cleaning woman, came. She liked to tell me about the strange things she would find. Today it was the glasses of milk left out overnight to spoil on the windowsills. Her tone was one of feigned commiseration, but I felt as if she was chiding me for not keeping the place clean in her absence, as if she expected me to arrive even earlier than my scheduled time to tidy up the apartment before she did. It was hard to like her. One morning she had tried to show me how to fold the lawyer’s boxer briefs into tight little squares, as if that were my purview and not hers, somehow folding one end into another until they sealed tight enough to stack in a drawer.
When she was here, I could not excuse myself by tending to the toddler, who slept through all the raucous vacuuming and wild spin cycles of the washing machine and was inclined to wake just after Sophie slammed the apartment door shut behind her. And Sophie would irritatingly follow me to every room I entered to escape her on the pretense of cleaning it next. Not even using books or magazines as props could dissuade her from engaging with me.
“Oh, that Brad Pitt?” She clucked her tongue and shook her head after seeing the cover of the magazine I had borrowed from the coffee table. “He like every man, a bad man, all that cheating and drugging nonsense.”
At first I did not know if she meant he was drugging other people, women or children perhaps. This was also during the waning ache of the whole #MeToo movement, where no one had been left whole. There could have been an accusation I had missed. But as she continued I saw that Sophie objected to his being known to have smoked pot on occasion in the past. It was on the tip of my tongue to voice my own opinion that pot wasn’t all that bad, but I had a glimpse of the future outcome from such a benign statement in the hands of Sophie — my being dismissed as a caretaker of young children for instance — and I swallowed back my words. Sophie gave me a crooked smile.
Oh Sophie, I thought. I hate you too.
After she left, the toddler predictably awoke and we sat on the couch together with a sippy cup of milk between us. The girl’s name was a clunky Elsbeth, but we called her Ellie. I didn’t generally have the proper disposition that made me a winning companion to a two-year-old. I had seen other nannies at the playground gaily cooing and making wide-eyed faces at their charges, but fortunately I could not see what either Ellie or I would get out of these exchanges ourselves. Ellie was a serious child whose main concern each day was that her hands were not clean enough. She was always thrusting them at me wordlessly for a wiping. She did this now before she would lift her milk to her lips.
In addition to a summer spent as an au pair for a family friend, the doctor had liked that I had taken French up through my junior year of college, and she had expressed her desire for me to converse with the girls in French whenever possible so their nimble minds could absorb some of it intuitively. The doctor herself spoke no other languages but English, so she could not know how stilted my French had become. I had already forgotten how to conjugate basic verbs. But I was fearless in front of a toddler. I gamely told Ellie that the room was big and the couch was soft. Then I added in English that after we changed her diaper we could go to the playground.
I packed an extra water bottle, some pretzels, and a banana into the front pocket of Ellie’s diaper bag, unfolded the stroller from the hallway closet, and we were soon on our way. The doorman held the door for us as we left the building, or maybe I should say he held the door for Ellie. It always felt odd but I had the distinct impression that I didn’t fall on his radar unless I was with the girls in my charge; he seldom even deigned to make eye contact otherwise. Most likely he was a snob. Ellie and I paused at the doorway long enough for him to make the same joke he did every time we saw him, where he pretended that Ellie’s toes had been swallowed up by her zippered foot muff. Under the puffy fleece brim of her cap Ellie regarded him with her usual serious expression, as if she were concerned about this nonsensical obsession of his.
As we walked, the city streets unspooled before me and revealed in Technicolor an endless array of people at various innocent pursuits. It felt good to be just walking among them, feeling their kindly energy. There was a tidy stream of other nannies and mothers pushing strollers and the occasional father passing by with an infant strapped to his chest. There were delivery men in brown uniforms pushing hand trucks loaded with brown boxes across stalled traffic. There were dog walkers, some with up to a dozen leashes clipped on their person at one time, moving in perfect sync with their canine charges. There were preschool students from a Montessori school wearing matching yellow mesh vests, kept in step between their teachers by a colorful rope line. There was a pack of boys in matching joggers and sweatshirts emblazoned with the name of their private school following their coach into the park, the taller ones carrying net bags filled with balls over their shoulders. And always there were tourists, taking selfies to capture this latest idyllic New York City moment.
And yet often in this dreamy scene there was an outlier to remind me that life was messy and imperfect. There were more and more homeless people again in Manhattan, and sometimes I would walk past one of their makeshift beds on the street, a flat cardboard box with a matted blanket on top, abandoned for the morning. I would pass them in person sometimes too, at times indistinguishable from anyone else at a distance but upon coming closer giving off that familiar rank of long-unwashed bodies. On any given day there might be panhandlers or loudly abusive people who seemed to be suffering a mental break from reality. The latter might be sitting on the benches along Central Park West having an episode, ranting loudly at passersby and squirrels alike with such unwavering commitment that it was always hard for me to picture them doing anything else. I would pass the same bench a week later and experience mild surprise that they were not still there.
I pushed Ellie up the small hill into the park and toward the playground. My weekdays ran on a loop, and we had a standing playdate on Fridays with a small crew from the neighborhood, familiar faces from our daily visits to various playgrounds and story hours. After I unstrapped Ellie from the stroller, I stood her up and watched her toddle over to her favorite friend Spencer. They could easily spend the next half hour together pushing invisible friends on the swings and inspecting the metal rungs on the slide without ever trying to climb them. Spencer’s nanny nodded at me and continued talking on her phone, blinking Bluetooth headphones tucked along her ears.
I plugged in my own headphones on low and opened up the podcast I’d taken to listening to lately, run by two sisters who strove to inspire listeners to live a more purposeful life. In between ads for toothbrushes that buzzed after two minutes and hair loss products that could be discreetly shipped to male consumers, the sisters interviewed a different guest every episode to hear their thoughts on how to live a life with intention.
It was a matter, the sisters were saying when I resumed play, of being truly awake to possibility and crafting out your best life. A lot of times people fell into ruts, running familiar paths without seeing anything. The way they phrased it had me picture mice running through a maze.
Then my phone buzzed with a text: my older cousin Hee Jin was in town for a wedding this weekend and wanted to remind me we were meeting for dinner. I didn’t relish the idea of seeing her, but I wanted to avoid the reprimands I would surely get from my mother and aunt if I canceled at the last minute. So I confirmed. She was staying at a hotel in Chelsea and she texted me its address.
The rest of the day skipped along like scenes from a familiar movie, the script borrowed from last Friday’s script: cutting crusts off peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, idling inside the warmth of the building’s playroom, a quick pop into a nearby craft store to get more drawing paper, and then picking up the older girls, Sera and Libby. Sera had chess and Libby had art class, and after we assembled back at the apartment, I put together a snack of grapes with string cheese and then ran Ellie her bath. Then, because it got dark so early now, I turned on all the lights in the living room while Sera and Libby raced through their homework with the promise of a TV show after.
The doctor was late, and at half past seven she returned home in a flurry, bearing dinner in greasy paper bags and an apologetic smile for being late. “Dan’s got a client thing and I wanted to pick up the girls’ favorite.” I could smell burgers and fries and I swallowed back my own hunger as I wrapped my knit scarf around my neck at the door. Sera called out goodbye from the couch but Libby came running down the hallway to see me off. She had just lost her first baby tooth in the front of her mouth and she showed off the hole when she smiled.
“I want to lock the door,” Libby explained. This was the same thing she said every night.
“Okay,” I said.
I heard the doctor setting the table inside, the thud of ceramic plates and glasses being laid out. Canned laughter from the sitcom Sera was watching rang out down the hallway. I looked at Libby expectantly. This was always our quiet moment together without Sera or Ellie also vying for my attention and was a big deal to a middle child who was used to being overlooked. To mark each special occasion Libby would ask me something out of the blue. Why are barns red, she might ask me. Why do turtles have shells? Did I believe in Santa when I was a girl?
“Why are there shadows?” she asked tonight.
It took me a few seconds to think of a plausible answer. “Well, I guess it’s because light can’t go through solid things so when it shines down on things like people, it’ll leave the shape of our bodies on the ground as a shadow.”
This was deemed acceptable and Libby shot her arms up toward me and rocked side to side for a hug. The jerky movement reminded me of the zombies from my morning dream, an unsettling memory as I bent down to embrace her. Libby pulled the door open for me and waved me off, watching me to the elevator door.
I took the 1 line down to Hee Jin’s hotel, and although there was persistent train traffic ahead of us, I made it downtown quicker than I had expected. There were more panhandlers closer to the commuter hubs of Manhattan, and I sidestepped one on my way up the station stairs. Once out on the street, I passed others who shook paper cups at me and others who sat mutely against building walls with cardboard signs propped beside them. There was even a pair casually lounging in squat beach chairs at the corner as if they were on line for a concert. There were more drug addicts here too, several in the throes of their latest high, standing but slumped over in precarious postures. Zombies again, I thought. I gave them a wide berth and didn’t linger.
The hotel felt like a refuge once I arrived, clean and orderly and decorated in comforting neutral tones. Once I got up to my cousin’s room, I was promptly shooed out of my jeans and into a borrowed dress. Hee Jin was a buyer for a series of upscale boutiques out in Carmel and Monterey, and she had a closet full of wonderful samples. The dress was a paisley sheath that draped me perfectly and fell at mid-thigh. She watched me swish the skirt with a twist of my hips in front of the full-length mirror.
“I bet you’re starting to feel like a person again,” Hee Jin said. She nodded at the sweater I had stripped off onto a chair, speckled with mysterious stains courtesy of Ellie.
“The kids aren’t that bad,” I protested.
“Kids aren’t human yet,” Hee Jin replied flatly. She poured out two glasses of a chilled Chardonnay.
Hee Jin of course looked impeccable as always, her skin dewy and her curves flattered in a long crushed velvet dress. She thought everyone felt their best when they looked their best, so next she set me up on the bed with her makeup bag. She appraised my complexion and went to work chiseling out cheekbones, defining the bridge of my nose and doing what all else. Besides the addition of the wine, we could have been kids again ourselves. Hee Jin had always liked giving makeovers.
As she worked on me, I closed my eyes. I had to admit that it felt good to be attended to like this, especially after a long week of tending to others. Hee Jin dusted eyeshadow across my eyelids and rimmed my eyes with a smoky liner. When I looked in the mirror I could barely recognize myself. Only the shoes were my own, a simple pair of functional flats.
Dinner was a short cab ride away at a posh steakhouse helmed by a celebrity chef. Although we arrived on time for our reservation, we were the second seating, and the couple at our table had just ordered dessert, so the hostess took our coats and welcomed us to wait at the bar. The room was crowded and loud with other people’s conversations. Luckily two stools opened up just as we entered. We slid in and ordered two more glasses of wine.
The drinks and the festive atmosphere had made Hee Jin talkative, and she started telling me about the new guy she was seeing, a plastic surgeon who specialized in rhinoplasty. She absentmindedly stroked the bridge of her own nose as she talked. Meanwhile, the first few sips of my new drink went right to my head and I remembered that I had not eaten. There was a wooden bowl of something for sampling on the bar and I reached for it.
“That’s a mistake,” a voice beside me said. I turned and saw the lawyer, his cheeks flushed and the top two buttons on his shirt undone. He had inserted himself between me and the next stool. I could smell the whiskey from his glass as he stirred the ice around.
“Oh, hi,” I said, surprised. The wine made me giggle self-consciously. It was the first time I’d seen the lawyer outside his home.
“You eat too much of those now and you won’t be able to eat later. And the food here is delicious.”
“You’re a sage.” I scooted a little back in my seat so I could address both the lawyer and Hee Jin. “This is my cousin,” I told the lawyer, who leaned in to hear me better. “She’s visiting from California.”
Hee Jin held out her hand. “Gina,” she introduced herself, using her American name.
“Dan,” the lawyer said. He set down his drink and shook Hee Jin’s hand. “Whereabouts in California?”
“Pacific Grove — it’s just north of Monterey. But I was born in New York.”
Someone behind the lawyer slapped his back to get his attention, likely one of his co-workers. I overheard the man telling the lawyer that he’d see him on Monday. Hee Jin gave me a raised eyebrow, and before I could explain that the lawyer was my boss, she felt her phone vibrate through her handbag and fished it out to answer the call. It might have been her new beau; she smiled when she saw who it was on her home screen. She gestured with a nod of her head to let me know she’d be taking the call out in the vestibule where it was quieter.
The lawyer returned his attention to me. “Sorry; that was one of my associates. Where’s your cousin going?” We watched her cut across the room, a happy bop in her step.
“She got a call.”
The lawyer leaned in confidentially. “You know, she’s fine and all but I just wanted to talk to you. You’re really pretty.” He put a proprietary hand on the back of my stool and, despite the warmth in the room, I felt an icy trickle of dread starting along my spine.
It suddenly occurred to me that the lawyer and I had never had an intimate moment like this before, that I had never heard this winning tone in his voice or had him lean in to smile at me as he was doing at this moment. He was looking at me now as if we had never met, and I was jolted by the sudden realization that he didn’t know who I was. I turned back to face the bar as if I’d been slapped, my cheeks warm.
“Don’t be shy,” the lawyer said. “I know you’re here with your cousin tonight, but I want to take you out some other time. Steak or whatever you want. I’m serious.” He pulled a business card from the silver case in his blazer’s front pocket and propped it against my wine glass.
How could he not see that it was me? It seemed impossible to reveal myself to him now without damaging something forevermore, but I also felt the precariousness of my situation. This anonymity couldn’t last. At any moment, given the right angle or lighting, he might recognize me himself, or Hee Jin might return and it would come out that I was a nanny on the Upper West Side. Certainly then he would be able to place me? And if somehow it didn’t happen tonight, there was always the possibility that he would realize who I was belatedly a week or two from now as I was changing Ellie’s diaper, say, or rolling out Play-Doh with the girls. Wasn’t there?
“What’re you drinking? Here, let me get you another.” The lawyer raised a finger for the bartender and ordered us another round although I hadn’t finished my glass. Couldn’t he see that too?
I felt strangely light-headed and fragile. From the corner of my eye I could see the lawyer taking in the lines of my face and figure with pleasure, but it was as if he didn’t see me at all. He didn’t recognize me or register my distress. It was as if I simply wasn’t there.
I was roused by the hostess, who was stalking the edge of the bar calling out Hee Jin’s last name. The lawyer saw me react and repeated the name with a sly smile as if he had learned a secret about me.
“Do I earn a first name too?” the lawyer asked as the bartender topped my glass generously.
I said the first one that popped to mind. “Sophie.” Sophie of the spoiled milk and neatly folded boxer briefs. I watched for any glimmer of recognition in his eyes but saw none.
“I’m going to let you enjoy your dinner, Sophie. Show your cousin a good time. But call me. Anything you want we’ll do; I promise.” And before I could even register more than a change in his posture, his arm was around me and he was pulling me in closer. His breath was warm and sour and I had just enough time to tilt my head so that his lips pressed against my cheek, and then I heard a low chuckle that tickled my ear as he released me. When I could look at him, the lawyer was smiling, amused. “You’re cute,” he said as I pushed away from my stool to stand.
I floated behind the hostess as she ferried our wine glasses and led me out of the bar. Hee Jin saw us coming from the exit and finished her call, and together we were escorted to our table. I sank into a tufted red leather side chair and accepted a menu from a harried waiter. Words tumbled out of his mouth, the specials for the day, something about a tomahawk ribeye and king salmon filets. I tripped over every third word. Hee Jin ordered for us, a porterhouse for two with sides of creamed spinach and sautéed onions. A busboy came by with a bottle of sparkling water. Everything was in place for a delicious dinner, but I tasted nothing when I bit into a sliver of warm focaccia.
Occasionally during the meal something behind me would catch Hee Jin’s eye and I would find my breath catching in my throat. I’d imagine the lawyer, now placing me, storming forth to angrily roar at how I had toyed with him earlier. Or the lawyer, still clueless and persistent, approaching with a full bottle of wine and an extra chair. At one point it occurred to me that he could even be leaving the restaurant with another woman he’d picked up from the bar. It was an exhaustingly rich world of possibility behind me.
After a perfunctory offer to split the check, Hee Jin paid and I thanked her for dinner. She had an early morning with the wedding, so we collected our coats and pushed our way out into the cold night. From the sidewalk I could see through the front windows of the restaurant into the bar, which had emptied out enough for me to see that the lawyer was gone. Hee Jin and I were both distracted, and it was only after we parted ways that I remembered we had originally meant to go back to her hotel together so I could change back into my clothes.
But all the adrenaline over dinner left me feeling a little flat, and it felt easier to just keep going than switch course. So I walked to the subway station and boarded the train home in a haze. I might have never felt so tired before but I didn’t want to risk falling asleep, so I stood and took in the ads around me. The smaller words blurred but the headlines were sharp and clear: learn a trade, order groceries online, and save a life.
The air around me stirred each time the doors opened. New passengers boarded and others got off. The more distance the train covered, the more it felt like everything that had happened earlier that night was an impossible dream. The conductor’s voice over the speakers came through tinged with static. I rocked and swayed with the train as it bustled over the tracks. The tunnels between stations were dark with only a few naked bulbs that streaked into bright lines as the train whizzed past. I saw those lights whip through my reflection in the marred glass of the subway windows enough times to be a little dazed that I was still upright every time we slowed into the next station. And yet I was.
The train car steadily emptied the farther north we went. We were running out of track, and soon we’d be at the last stop, which was mine. I shifted closer to the subway doors and imagined Libby thinking up a good question before she would let me out.
“Are zombies real?” she might ask.
And I’d have to suppress my first instinct to soothe her and tell her of course not, that they were imaginary and there was nothing to fear. Because if I thought about it, there were too many things in the world to be afraid of, and it would be a disservice to her to pretend otherwise. And anyway, zombies were probably as real as any other story we told ourselves. My nanny speaks French. Brad Pitt is a bad man. My name is Sophie. This night changed everything.
I was probably part-zombie myself — a somewhat enlightened, self-diagnosing one but a zombie nonetheless. If I revealed myself to Libby, she’d probably be scared. To reassure her, I’d have to sift through all the rotting parts of me and bring forth my still-beating heart, to prove I meant no harm, that in fact I meant the opposite. And what I’d tell her is this: What I meant to do, what I still aimed to do, was shake myself out of this moment into a future when this would all feel far away. I would meet my future self in all her glory. She would see me and I would see her. There would be triumph in her eyes to see how far she had come. And I would know then that I had done it. I had saved a life.
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