Art by Dietmar Busse
Norah and Tara were fighting over egg whites. One of the residents had switched his breakfast preference to scrambled egg whites instead of regular eggs, and Norah, who never read the instructional cards, hadn’t ordered any from the kitchen. The resident complained and the cook had called Tara. Tara got pissed because he had woken her up, and when she tried to tell Norah she was wrong, Norah began screaming.
Norah’s stiff black uniform crinkled with the exaggerated movements that accompanied her shrill voice. Irina didn’t like either of them, but Norah had taken first place on her who-to-avoid list. Norah had worked here for over forty years. She made bad jokes, broke personal-space barriers, tried to boss everyone around, and believed she was always right. Hence the egg-white fiasco.
Irina covered a yawn. She had been scheduled to work the morning shift, which meant she had been at the nursing home since 6 AM. It was now ten, and her eyes struggled to stay open as she looked around the room at the rest of her coworkers. Jaqueline stared at her shoes, James cleaned his glasses with his shirt, Maddy munched on a breakfast bar, and Clara stared out the window. Irina didn’t know the others’ names, just their faces. They looked as tired as she felt.
Sam, the supervisor, broke Norah and Tara up. The meeting, if you could call it that, was over. Irina never understood the need for a daily meeting. All it consisted of was going over the menu, which everyone had a copy of anyway, and discussing the weather if it was snowing or pouring and someone had an issue getting to work on time. Also something that could be handled with a phone call. The sole purpose she could come up with was to give the illusion of importance, to sit down with the managers and have them nod along as someone vented about how the weekend shift people hadn’t folded the napkins correctly or left the milk on the wrong shelf. Irina didn’t get why people like Norah got so worked up over these matters. They all made minimum wage, so why complicate things?
Irina and Jaqueline worked the fourth-floor kitchen, Jaqueline behind the counter and Irina in the front. “That was weird downstairs,” Irina said as she waited for Jaqueline to finish scooping vanilla pudding into cups.
“Norah needs to learn to shut the fuck up. She’s always trying to do other people’s jobs and shit.”
“I know. Whenever I see I’m scheduled to work with her, I consider calling out.”
“Yeah, and who cares about egg whites? Just fucking do it.”
“Exactly.” Jaqueline was the only other worker who was Irina’s age, and they had bonded over their mutual dislike for the job. Jaqueline was saving up for an EMT course and couldn’t wait to leave.
“Norah doesn’t know when to stop talking,” Jaqueline said.
“I stopped answering her and after a while she got the hint. But she still tries to tell me what to do, like last week she wanted me to clean the fridge.”
“Hell no, no one wants to touch that nasty-ass fridge.”
They fell into a comfortable silence, and Irina finished preparing the trays, placing milk, ice cream, cake, pudding, and fruit on each one. Jaqueline served the main course, which looked and smelled like the crap they gave for hot lunch at elementary school. Greasy chicken that leaked highlighter-yellow fat, instant mashed potatoes, and watery boiled spinach. The residents who got that were lucky; the few unfortunate ones deemed as puree texture got the same thing but blended up. The different colored pastes congealed together and wobbled like Jell-O.
When the residents finished eating, Irina scraped the returned plates clean of leftover, chewed-up, spit-up, or untouched food, gagging at one particularly nasty plate covered in cranberry juice and milk with a soggy Band-Aid stuck to it. Jaqueline loaded the dishwasher as Irina disinfected the pan racks and stacked the dinner trays onto them. They were almost done when Norah came in with a Styrofoam food tray in her hands. “Hi, Irina, hey, Jaqueline! Can you believe what happened earlier? Tara has no idea what she’s talking about and that she speaks to me like I don’t know what I’m doing—” Jaqueline slammed the dishwasher shut. “She has no right to—,” Norah continued as she sat down and opened her tray. “But don’t worry, I put her in her place.” Norah spoke with her mouth full, exposing a blend of spinach and chicken. Irina draped protective plastic over the finished trays. “Sam agreed with me, so that’s all that matters.” The clock read 2 PM, only half an hour left before Irina’s shift ended. “Why aren’t you eating? Have you eaten yet?” Norah asked.
“No, I’m gonna eat at home,” Irina said.
“You need to eat. Here.” She waved at the leftover food Jaqueline had returned to the trolley from the downstairs kitchen. “I never see you eat.”
“I’m good. I’d rather eat at home.”
“But you’re so skinny, such a long shift and not eating.” She launched into another monologue. Norah was right about one thing; she never did see Irina eat. The thought of ingesting something linked to this place gave Irina a strange sense of panic. As if by eating, she’d be accepting this part of her life, and somehow that meant she wouldn’t be able to leave.
“Hey, Norah, so I just finished for the day and have to make a phone call. I’ll be right back,” Irina said. Jaqueline glared at her, but she was already halfway to the door.
“Done so early, just like me!” Norah jumped up from her chair. “See how easy our lives are?” She put her hands on her hips with an air of pride and happiness, as if she had a secret cheat code to life. Irina cringed as she speed-walked to the bathroom. Norah’s ignorant joy, her lack of aspiration for anything better than cleaning up after others and working a repetitive cycle of minimum wage in a draining job made Irina angry. She locked the bathroom door and felt trapped. Maybe she wasn’t angry, just frustrated and scared. Irina looked in the mirror. Her hair was hidden under a hairnet, her under-eye bags and skin imperfections showed because she didn’t care enough to wear makeup to work, she was pale, and her body covered by the formless uniform. Embarrassment mixed in with her fear.
At what point in Norah’s life, or in the lives of any of the people who had worked here for decades, had they given up on their dreams? How could they wake up every morning knowing that the rest of their lives would be spent wasting hours doing a job that, if you had a double, meant working from 6 AM to 6:30 PM? Did they go kicking and screaming, desperately trying to find another option before being weighed into compliance by the financial burden of children, an ill relative, or something like that? Or did they not notice, just rolled out of bed one day knowing that their time for change had passed?
She was terrified of ending up like Norah. Day after day after day of the same dead-end schedule. Always working, sacrificing time, and, in some cases, health—Maddy had blown out her back lifting a box of canned beans last year—and still struggling to make ends meet.
Whenever she clocked in, Irina was faced with reminders of how easy it would be for her to become one of them. It showed her first-hand what her life might become if she wasn’t able to graduate, if her scholarship got taken away, if she didn’t get an internship, or if she couldn’t get into grad school. She had the urge to ask Norah what her dream had been when she was a child but held back, knowing that whatever it was, whoever she had once been, wasn’t worth the agitation of speaking to who she was now.
“About three years ago, she had watched a girl named Kate on YouTube and redone her entire room. Kate talked about the importance of making your space comfortable, clean, and productive, and gave tips on how to achieve this. Irina worked as a babysitter back then and saved for over a year to buy minimalist Ikea furniture, fairy lights, desk and floor lamps, Scandinavian prints, a fluffy rug, and bedsheets with a delicate pastel purple pattern.”
Irina spent the rest of the shift hiding in the bathroom, stepping out during the last five minutes to throw off her uniform, shove it as far down into her bag as she could, and rip off her hairnet. In the basement, everyone crowded by the iPad, motionless, watching the seconds go by so they wouldn’t waste a penny by clocking out a moment before 2:30. She nudged past them and into the storage room, where she took some water bottles and scavenged for ketchup and oatmeal. Sam was terrible at keeping track of inventory, so she’d been doing a good chunk of her grocery shopping here. 2:33. She walked out of the storage room and clocked out at the deserted iPad.
The subway was delayed, and by the time she got off the F train at West 4th Street it was almost four. Washington Square hummed with midsummer energy. Children ran through the fountain, shooting water guns and wading after one another. Ice cream stands, artists, and street performers lined the pathways, and a mix of voices, hip-hop, and barking flooded Irina’s ears. A man played a familiar tune on a light-up keyboard, and a homeless woman danced a strange, offbeat jig to it. A little boy on a scooter nearly collided with a group of finance bros who refused to take off their suit jackets despite the heat.
Irina entered her building and walked around the marble staircase to the hidden basement stairs beneath it. At the bottom, she passed the gaping doorway of the boiler room on her way down the paint-smelling hallway that ended with the door to her dad’s apartment.
Across from the front door was her dad’s room. It was wide, with space to fit a sofa, bed, and desk. Despite this, the space felt cramped. The only window was a small sliver in the top corner of the room, too high to reach without a ladder. The door was covered in drill marks Irina had made when she was a kid and had gotten into her dad’s toolbox. He had since covered the door and surrounding wall area in notes, half Polish, half English, words and numbers that seemed meaningless but served as reminders of things he needed to do.
The short hallway covered in tan and green tiles housed the building’s meters and an abandoned fridge from the ’50s, which her dad had converted into a huge toolbox. The bathroom was to the left of the entryway that opened into the kitchen. It was cheaply renovated, except for the ancient gas stove that required long matches to ignite. A peeling white island counter separated the kitchen from the living and dining area, which consisted of a worn brown sofa and round table. To the right of the table was Irina’s bedroom.
About three years ago, she had watched a girl named Kate on YouTube and redone her entire room. Kate talked about the importance of making your space comfortable, clean, and productive, and gave tips on how to achieve this. Irina listened and turned her childhood bedroom, previously decorated with random furniture other people in the building had discarded, into her own safe space. She worked as a babysitter back then and saved for over a year to buy minimalist Ikea furniture, fairy lights, desk and floor lamps, Scandinavian prints, a fluffy rug, and bedsheets with a delicate pastel purple pattern. Whenever she entered her room, she felt relief, no matter what type of day she had had.
Irina grabbed her towel and padded to the bathroom. Water splashed off of her and onto the tub in an irregular rhythm, clearing her head and filling the room with steam that fought off the persistent basement chill. The tension that had accumulated in her forehead and shoulders over the course of the day began to release.
She applied a pre-shampoo hair mask and let it sit as she exfoliated the layer of skin that had been exposed to the nursing home, the messy food scraps, and itchy uniform. With every scrub, she felt closer to herself. Her skin gleamed as she rinsed off the hair mask, shampooed, conditioned, and washed her face, rubbing in upward motions to reduce the under-eye bags that had gathered in protest of her early shift.
Feeling fresh, clean, and restored, she bundled her hair in a towel and put on a robe. She sat down at her desk, switched on the lighted mirror, and applied her makeup. Irina’s hands moved across her face on their own, repeating the motions they had memorized from years of practice. She watched her eye bags vanish, cheekbones pop, skin even out and take on a sun-kissed glow along with healthy, rosy cheeks. Her almond-shaped eyes elongated with two catlike strokes, and her eyelashes extended. Her lips became fuller and more defined with a rose-nude color a couple of shades darker than their natural tone.
Her hair dried in waves that she accentuated by brushing in honey-infused hair oil that smelled candied and decadent. She adorned her ears with pearl drop earrings Marcus had bought for her birthday and snapped on a silver necklace that complemented her off-the-shoulder black dress. She readied her purse and sprayed on perfume.
Before leaving, she sat back down in front of the mirror. Her heart fluttered, and she closed her eyes, taking three deep breaths. She became aware of the familiar knot in her stomach, the slight unsteadiness of her hands, and the perspiration gathering under her arms. She took three more deep breaths and squeezed every muscle in her body, counted to ten, then let them fall limp. Three more breaths, and she felt better. Irina opened her eyes and saw them reflected back in the mirror. She was a different person from the girl in the mirror at work. That girl was exhausted, unkempt, pasty, and had an air of sad, hopeless irritation. But this girl looked as though she had everything. She could be a lawyer, going out to celebrate after a long week of winning cases, a businesswoman who had just closed a huge deal, an editor for a successful magazine. Maybe she worked at a museum, or was an art consultant to one of New York City’s many millionaires. She had long, gleaming hair, playful eyes, a happy but serious expression, and exuded confidence. Irina touched the girl’s face, knowing she wasn’t really herself but wishing that she was. She was the face that Irina presented to the world, the girl she’d created in seventh grade and watched grow ever since.
When Irina was little, she lived in Queens, and her dad worked as a handyman in the building across the street from their current Manhattan apartment. When he heard of an opening for a superintendent position in this building that came with a free apartment on Fifth Avenue, he took it. This way, he saved on rent, could keep both jobs because they were located so close to one another, and Irina was in the desirable District 2 school zone, just in time to transfer to the nearby elementary school at the start of second grade. Every night he’d yell at her to do practice tests for the standardized New York state exams that decided what middle school she’d get into. Irina listened and got perfect scores.
In middle school, her dad found out she was smarter than the average kid, and he pounced on that. She didn’t have time to relax between school, homework, his extra homework, and more test prep for the next set of standardized tests that would determine what high school she attended. After a while, he didn’t have to nag Irina anymore. She’d internalized the importance of getting straight As, and it became her only focus. She spent her weekends at home studying, quizzing herself on vocab words no one used in real life, and timing herself solving math equations.
That was also when Irina created this girl, the one she put on before school and shed when she came home. Her name was Ella. Ella’s father was a banker, and her mother was an elusive businesswoman who lived in Boston. Ella always smiled, was well put together, and never let anything slip out of her control. She was the girl who participated in class, wrote perfect papers, the girl boys asked out to school dances, and the girl who got into one of the best high schools in the city.
In high school, Ella fit right in. She attended Alice’s housewarming and didn’t act surprised by her double penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Nor was she fazed when the girls who invited her out to lunch spent thirty dollars on sandwiches and iced coffee every day. Ella had quick excuses, casual explanations, and was designed to observe everyone and make herself blend in. Ella applied to and received university scholarships, studied well in advance for exams, submitted assignments she knew would get an A, and had an inner discipline pushing her forward. No one, except Irina’s friend Diana, knew the truth.
Irina had created Ella to avoid the anxiety of a classmate asking what her parents did for a living, right after stating that theirs were surgeons, lawyers, or something of the sort. She dreaded the silence that went on just a beat too long, followed by the awkward “Oh, that’s cool,” and quick subject change whenever she told the truth. After that, her peers treated Irina differently. It was a subtle change. No one was rude or made fun of her, but she was no longer invited to meet up after class or to sleepovers. When they realized she wasn’t like them they began treating her as such, polite but distant.
Ella was made to help Irina fit in. At that age, that’s all Irina had cared about. She never thought that Ella would become an integral part of her life or that she’d grow jealous of her. Ella was Irina’s greatest asset, and she planned to use her until she became her. Until then, Irina was caught somewhere between the two girls she’d seen in mirrors today. She was a rising senior studying engineering and worked at the nursing home. She wasn’t wealthy, but most of her friends and her boyfriend were, allowing her a glimpse into their lives. She didn’t pay rent, so she could afford to go out, and Marcus usually paid anyway. She lived in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan, but only because her dad was the super. She was caught in the middle.
Ella smiled through the mirror. Irina ran her fingers through Ella’s hair, adjusted her earrings, and got up. She emerged from under the city, ready to partake in its Friday night activities.
She crossed the street and paused by Claudette to text Diana. A group of drunk women sat outside, laughing and wooing and taking photos of their food. Their waitress, a pretty girl around Irina’s age, came up to the table and started clearing empty glasses while taking orders and refill requests. Irina had seen her working before, and each time contemplated saying hi since she recognized her from campus. She was friends with Naomi, a girl from Irina’s computer science elective. The waitress looked up and made eye contact with Irina. Did she recognize her? They smiled at one another before looking away, neither one of them wanting to come off weird. “Mila! Table twelve is asking for you,” someone called from inside the restaurant. Mila, arms full of empty glasses, hurried inside.
As Irina passed the restaurant on her way to Union Square, she remembered the anxiety she had felt when Marcus, after walking her home one night, had suggested that they get brunch or dinner at Claudette. Irina had sputtered and almost lost her Ella façade. What if during brunch, her dad passed by on his lunch break? Or saw them at dinner when he clocked out? One look at his work uniform, and Marcus would know she had lied about him being a banker. “Nah, this place is overrated. I’ve been twice, and both times it sucked. The staff is super rude, especially the hostess. I had a reservation, and she made me wait an extra forty-five minutes to get seated.”
Later that night, Irina sat in the shower and cried. Nothing had happened, Ella and her secret were safe, but instead of relief, Irina had felt sadness. Up until then, Ella had been a harmless invention. One without any sacrifices or drawbacks, something Irina had been in full control over. A charade she could drop at any time if she wanted to because none of the people she deceived mattered. But after that night, Irina realized that she couldn’t just drop the Ella act, not unless she was ready to lose Marcus and his friends that had become her own. And on top of that, Irina had felt guilt for wanting to hide from her dad. He had worked hard and accomplished so much in his life. How horrible would he feel if he knew that she was embarrassed of him?
And what if he already knew? Whenever she and Marcus or their friends were in her area, Irina was hypervigilant for her dad, but what if she had missed him and he’d seen her but decided not to say hi? Decided to pretend he was a stranger because, in an unspoken way, he could tell that this was what Irina wanted? Had one of her friends given him a snooty look? Had he noticed that in the past, she would sometimes meet him after work, and they’d stroll around Washington Square or get an early dinner, but now she avoided going anywhere with him out of fear of being recognized? Despite being in the shower, Irina had felt disgusting, and no amount of scrubbing could have changed that.
Irina’s phone pinged and brought her back to the present. Running a bit late, sorry! Diana wrote.
Okay, I’m near Union already so I’ll wait for you. Irina walked across the stone pavement where the farmers’ market stood during the day. The smell of frying meat from a halal cart fanned by as she passed the Gandhi statue. The cart was the first in a string of vendors, including a caricaturist with sketches of people donning exaggerated noses or ears hanging around him, a used-books stand, and a foldout table from which an old man sold an array of worn shoes and jewelry.
People weaved past each other, pushing and shoving the occasional straggler. The pungent smoke from incense stands in front of Whole Foods reached her. Someone chuckled, a low heartfelt sound that resonated over the rest of the street’s chatter. She twisted around. A large man with dreadlocks and a red cap had just beaten someone in a game of chess set up on a plastic fruit box. She watched people and cars blur into one another, doing her best to keep her mind blank, until Diana tapped her shoulder.
“Hey, Irina,” she said and leaned over for a hug.
“Hey, what took you so long?”
“My mom needed me to pick up Zach from after-school. I guess they were finger-painting today because he was covered in that crap.”
“Did you get it off him?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know about the clothes. I just put them in the washer.”
“You’ll probably have to toss them. Paint never came off of me when I was a kid.”
“It’s my mom’s problem now.” They strolled further into Union Square Park and sat on the rounded steps. Diana pulled out two bottles of raspberry Sparkling Ice.
“Thanks. Did you bring the shooters too?” Irina asked, opening the bottle and pouring out about a quarter.
“Yeah, they’re in my bag. We had a lot left over from last week.” She placed her purse, filled with white rum shooters, between them. Irina cast a quick look around to make sure no cops were nearby before pouring three shots into each bottle. They took their first sips, crinkling their noses as the rum burned their throats.
“Who’s gonna be at the rooftop tonight?” Diana asked.
“Marcus, obviously, Kathleen, Asher, Tyler, Gunther, and Sasha.” Irina nudged Diana. “I made sure Marcus invited Tyler. Maybe tonight something will finally happen between you two.”
“I hope so. He flirts with me every time we hang out but hasn’t hit me up.”
“Weird, but Marcus said Tyler likes you. Maybe he’s shy or really busy with that internship.” Diana shrugged and took a sip of her drink. “Just wait and see. Every guy is different.” Two men brought a jump rope, and people lined up, taking turns jumping through it. In between jumpers, one of the guys started up his portable radio and placed it next to a bucket marked “Donations.” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” blared from the speaker, enticing more people to join the jump rope line. Irina took another shooter and swallowed it without the mixer.
“Didn’t have a good shift?” Diana asked.
“Not really. I hate being there full-time. It makes me want school to start again.”
“Same. Without school my mom sees me as a free nanny.” Diana had been raised by a single mom who worked as a cleaning lady. They used to live in the same building back in Queens. She had four younger siblings, Zach, Josh, Dave, and Lily, and they all had to cram into a one-bedroom walk-up. Whenever Irina came over, it was chaos. Diana’s siblings would scream and chase each other around the apartment, leave food, markers, and clothes all over the floor and furniture, cry, and occasionally knock over a lamp or vase.
“Shit, yeah. Your siblings can be a lot.” Irina pulled out a pack of Camels and offered it to Diana.
“They’re fucking with my study time.” She took a drag from her cigarette and put her hand to her forehead.
“You’re always welcome to study at mine.”
“Thanks. It’s not just that, though. Three extra years in school is a long time, and I’ll be in so much debt.” Diana trailed off and looked away.
“Seriously, just come over whenever you want some peace and quiet. You won’t be living with your family forever.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Irina shot an irritated look at Diana. She hated when Diana got in these moods. Diana had been talking about moving out ever since she was a freshman in high school, and Irina had no trouble imagining why. Especially since her need for personal space and time to herself would go up when she started law school and her workload increased. That’s why she’d let Irina introduce her to Marcus’s friends. She’d previously refused because she didn’t want to make up her own version of an Ella, but once she saw how quickly Irina got Marcus to ask her to move in with him, she changed her mind.
Diana didn’t understand why Irina wanted to move out of her dad’s place. She was an only child, and the apartment was quiet and well-located. These things were true, but Irina was motivated by something else. She’d grown up surrounded by people who had more than her. More clothes, more bags, more shoes, and as she got older, she realized, more freedom. They would escape the cold winter months in Aruba or the Bahamas. They could go out to dinner and drink wine by the bottle without worrying about the check. They could go shopping with the confidence that anything they wanted was theirs. They lived in high apartments with large windows that they loved and didn’t have to settle for a basement because it was what they could afford.
Irina wanted a job that paid enough to do all of those things and more. One that shone with the possibilities of a lucrative future. She wanted an apartment up in the clouds, the vacations where she wouldn’t fly economy and be sandwiched between a fat person and a bawling baby, the dinners, bars, and parties. She could wait one year until she graduated, then another two for her master’s, assuming she could afford to do it full-time, and then a few more years to build her way up in some company to reach these goals, but that took a lot of patience and living not in her desired style in the meantime. This is where Marcus and moving in with him became important. And to do that, Irina needed Ella, who already fit in with the people she wanted to become and would help her make their lifestyle her reality.
“Sorry, I’m just annoyed with everything today,” Diana said.
“Yeah, I get it.”
“How’d you make Marcus ask you to move in with him so soon?”
“Just say what he wants to hear, and his imagination will do the rest.” Irina was going to move in with Marcus at the end of next month when his roommate left for a job in California. Diana handed Irina the cigarette butt, and she took a final puff before rubbing it out. “I think it helped that we met in class.”
“Yeah, because we spent lots of time together before he asked me out. Plus, we always had something to talk about.” Irina had met Marcus during the first week of junior year. He had sat in the front row with an intense, almost angry expression, fingers ready to start pounding on his keyboard even though the professor was just beginning to set up. He seemed as though he had something to prove, and Irina thought he was cute underneath his scowl. She sat next to him, had Ella introduce herself, and asked if he was alright. He said he was nervous, and she tried to make him feel better and offered to help him if he ever needed it. This loosened him up, and they became seat buddies.
Eventually he did need help, and they spent hours at the university coffee shop studying. After the exam, coffee turned into drinks, drinks into dinner, dinner into sleepovers, and then he asked her to be his girlfriend. About a month into their relationship, he broke down over a bad quiz score. Irina hadn’t understood his reaction. It wasn’t worth that much, and he could easily make it up. That’s when he told her that his father was the CEO of one of the top engineering firms in the city, and he felt as though he had to live up to his expectations.
After that, their relationship took on a new meaning. Irina had the image of her dad, always working, coming home at night after his two jobs, and crumpling up on the sofa only to get up and do the same thing all over again. Working at the nursing home helped her understand just how much he had given up for her to have a fighting chance. What she hated and wanted to run from, he ran straight into, all for her. She knew grades could get her places, but not as far as connections. Dating Marcus became more than just seeing a guy she had a crush on. It became part of her plan. Just as she worked to excel at school, she worked to excel as his girlfriend. She couldn’t let an opportunity like Marcus slip through her fingers.
Irina had told Diana all of this, and although Diana never said anything out loud, she seemed to hold some resentment towards Irina and Marcus’s relationship. She thought Irina was using him. She dismissed the detail that they were already dating when Irina found out who his dad was. Diana believed that Irina was searching for anyone with good connections and that if Marcus hadn’t been what she had hoped, she would have found someone else. But Irina had liked Marcus before knowing anything, and if the opportunities he had that might help her someday were an incentive to work hard at their relationship, how was that a bad thing? It simply meant that he got a girlfriend who put time and effort into the relationship and wanted to have a future with him.
“Okay, well Tyler and I don’t even go to the same school. What if there’s someone from there he’s hung up on?”
“He probably would have told Marcus if there was,” Irina said and lit another cigarette.
“I don’t know. This whole thing seems unreliable.”
“You don’t wanna go tonight?”
“No, I do. I only—”
“Then go up to Tyler knowing you’re the hottest bitch he’s ever talked to, believe it, and so will he. If you think you’re gonna fuck up, then you will. So, don’t think it.”
“Yeah, fuck. You’re right.” They watched a woman take off her high heels and throw herself into the whirling jump rope. “What about you? Aren’t you worried Marcus will want to meet your dad once you move in? He already introduced you to his family. Won’t he expect the same?”
“I told him my dad was super strict and doesn’t want me dating until I’m done with school. That’ll hold me over until graduation. Then I’ll figure it out.” Irina downed the remainder of the rum-and-sparkling-water mixture. “Keeping Marcus from meeting my dad hasn’t been that hard. I feel like having a strict parent is a pretty simple explanation to keep him and our guy friends away. It’s the girls that are the issue.”
“What’ve you been telling them all this time?”
“Just that because my dad is so strict, we wouldn’t be able to drink or pregame at mine, or that if he heard us talking about boys or going out, then I’d get in trouble, and that he likes to come home from work to a quiet house, stuff like that.”
“Seems like a lot of work,” Diana said and stood up. “Where are we meeting them?”
“Dear Irving on Hudson, it’s a rooftop on 40th.”
Irina spotted Marcus across the lounge, surrounded by Kathleen, Asher, Tyler, Gunther, and Sasha. She fixed her smile, relaxed her eyebrows, and strode further into the dim amber and gold room. Abstract gold chandeliers leaked muted yellow light, casting shadows across faces. Sasha took a selfie with Kathleen, once with flash and once without. Asher jumped in the back of it, sticking out his tongue. Gunther had his hand on Marcus’s shoulder and balanced a half-empty drink on the edge of the small, circular table in front of them. Tyler reclined into the burnt-orange sofa, eyes glazed, and rubbed his head as he focused on the view outside. “Tyler’s alone right now. You gotta talk to him,” Irina said to Diana.
“He seems pretty drunk.”
“The lightweight of the group.” Irina laughed.
Gunther noticed Diana and Irina first. “There they are!” He took his hand off Marcus’s shoulder and came close to spilling his drink. Marcus smiled and got up.
“Hey, I missed you,” he said and hugged Irina before making room on the sofa.
“Diana and I got caught up at that little bar you told me to check out, Slowly Shirley.”
“Did you guys like it?”
“It was fun. The whole speakeasy vibe was cool. You were right, I did love the Village Bicycle drink.”
“I knew you’d like it,” he said and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
“Let’s go there together next weekend?”
“I don’t know about next weekend,” Marcus trailed off, his eyes focused on hers, and a smile began to twitch at the corners of his mouth.
“Why? What’s next weekend?”
“We might want to go somewhere a bit more—” He was cut off by the waiter.
“Can I get you anything, miss?”
“Yes, I’ll have the—” Marcus handed Irina the menu, and she hovered her finger across the cocktail list. “The 808 State, please.”
“And I’ll take another one of these,” Marcus said, pointing to his glass.
“Another Balto Old-Fashioned?” the waiter asked, and Marcus nodded. The waiter turned away, and before Irina had the chance to ask Marcus what was so special about next weekend, Kathleen hopped over from the other sofa.
“What took you and Diana so long? I couldn’t wait to tell everyone, so they already know, but my parents are being placed in Buenos Aires in a few months.” Kathleen’s voice slurred the ends of each word, but her eyes sparkled, and a genuine smile extended across her face.
“No way, that’s awesome.”
“I know. I’m so excited! We’re gonna have the best time.” She opened her arms up to the group. “You’re all invited to visit me in Buenos Aires.”
“If it’s anything like their New Delhi assignment, I’m so in,” Sasha said. Kathleen’s parents were both diplomats for the US government, and every three years, they were placed in a different city around the world. Kathleen had been born in Seattle but spent her childhood in Kyiv, Rome, Minsk, Cape Town, and Tokyo. The stories she had were insane. She moved to the city for undergrad and was now working at the UN.
“It’ll be better,” Kathleen said. “This time, you have to come. I can’t believe you couldn’t make it out to New Delhi,” she said to Irina.
“I know, I’m still upset about that, but I couldn’t miss my cousin’s wedding. We have three years for Argentina. I’m sure it’ll work out.” The truth is that her cousin had gotten married at that time, but it was a quick family ceremony upstate that was over within the span of a single weekend, but she’d milked it. No way she could afford a flight to New Delhi.
“I bet the girls are hot there. I can’t wait for one of them to help me perfect my Spanish,” Asher said. Sasha, who refused to admit that she had a thing for Asher, slapped his arm. “Don’t worry, baby. You know you’ll always be my number one.” He winked at Sasha, who rolled her eyes.
“We’d be going there to spend time together as a group, not to have you run around after anything with a heartbeat.”
“Shit, Sasha, chill,” Tyler said, looking up from his conversation with Diana. Irina grinned at Diana in a way that asked, Is he flirting with you? She signaled that he was.
“She’s kinda right, Asher,” Marcus chimed in. “You just told me how much you blew in Vegas last week. You gotta be more careful.”
“You guys are all boring as fuck.” Asher called the waiter over. “Let’s get a round of shots. Tequila.” The waiter nodded. “That’ll help you guys loosen up.”
“Wait, but I have to catch up on some work tomorrow,” Tyler said. Tyler interned at Goldman Sachs and never stopped reminding the group about how much work it was.
“It’s a Friday night. You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it,” Gunther said.
“Yeah, c’mon. Diana, get him to relax, will you?” Asher said.
“How was work today?” Marcus asked, turning his attention away from the group and back to Irina.
“She began to feel people’s eyes. They tore into her, accused her, peeled off her disguise, and exposed that she didn’t belong here. The women in navy suits were whispering about Irina, and the slick black-haired man had figured out her secret and told the woman he was with, and she laughed at Irina’s expense. Birthday girl told her girlfriends how she had known something was off about Irina the second she walked in. Everyone knew, and they were closing in on her.”
“It was okay, nothing crazy. I had a few students who needed help bringing up their math and logical reasoning SAT sections. I wanted to make sure they got everything right, so it took up some time.” She had told Marcus, as well as everyone else except Diana, that she tutored high schoolers to explain the hours she spent at the nursing home. It was a good cover-up, and since she had been a tutor in the past, before the small Chinatown-based company she worked for went bankrupt, it didn’t feel as fake as a total lie would.
“I’m sure you nailed it. They’re lucky to have your help. I still can’t believe how you managed to get a near-full fucking ride. It’s unheard of.”
“Guess I got lucky.” Marcus took her hand between his and squeezed it. That excited glint from earlier returned to his eyes. The waiter brought the shots, and everyone clinked them together against the skyline. Marcus tapped his glass a second time just into Irina’s. She nestled into the nook between Marcus’s chest and arm as he fiddled with her hair. Tyler and Diana’s heads were close together, their expressions animated, deep in their own world, having a conversation she would tell Irina about tomorrow. Sasha and Asher took another shot together as Kathleen and Gunther exchanged knowing glances. Kathleen pinched Sasha, who blushed and looked at Irina before starting to giggle. Asher got up to go to the bar, unable to get the waiter’s attention from across the room. When he was gone, Irina asked Sasha if she was ready to admit she liked him. Sasha turned red.
“Maybe I do.” She paused. “But he’s such a fucking asshole.”
“He is, but if you like him, you should tell him. You’re not some random girl.” They talked a bit more about whether or not Sasha should tell Asher her feelings and debated if it would ruin their friendship, make the group dynamic awkward, and questioned if Asher was ready to consider a relationship.
At some point during the conversation, all the alcohol hit Irina. She was drunk, but not obvious, belligerent, or sloppy drunk. She was relaxed, collected, and spoke clearly, surrendering control to the trancelike state where what she said made sense, but she forgot the words she spoke the moment they seeped out of her mouth. She hoped she wasn’t repeating herself.
A man with slick black hair and his shirt unbuttoned too low stood by the bar with a woman who threw her head back laughing. Two women in navy suits whispered to each other at a table, a girl with curly hair, a tan dress, and a crown that read “Birthday Girl” posed with her friends for a photo, and six guys ate chicken wings while sipping beers and slapping one another on the back in some kind of agreement. Other people swarmed around the bar, resting at tables and perching on chairs, talking, drinking, and staring at the view. They began to merge, becoming nothing more than a dynamic blob of sharp suits, open collars, leather dress shoes, sweet and tangy perfume, silky dresses, figure-hugging skirts, lacquered high heels, clinking glasses, and the faint smell of cigarettes that tumbled around Irina’s peripheral vision.
From this congealed group, she began to feel people’s eyes. They tore into her, accused her, peeled off her disguise, ripped Ella away from her, and exposed that she didn’t belong here. The women in navy suits were whispering about Irina, and the slick black-haired man had figured out her secret and told the woman he was with, and she laughed at Irina’s expense. Birthday girl told her girlfriends how she had known something was off about Irina the second she walked in. Everyone knew, and they were closing in on her. The sound of silverware against plates, the scuffle of shoes on the floor, and the thump of the music were suffocating. She sipped her drink and heard herself agree with something Marcus said, and he drew her away from Sasha.
Marcus’s brown eyes felt safe amidst the sea of strangers’ accusations. His mouth moved, and he led Irina onto the outdoor terrace. He pulled out a chair, and as she sat down, he said he’d be back in a second because he had forgotten their drinks inside.
The warm night air helped to steady the world and calm Irina. No one knew she didn’t belong here. Ella had made sure of that. It was Ella who had spoken to Sasha, followed Marcus outside, and now sat at this table. Irina glanced past the glass doors to the burnt-orange sofas with the rest of her friends. Would they be her friends if they knew Irina instead of Ella? How would they react if she went in there and told them she lived in a basement, that her dad wasn’t a banker but a super, that she was a lunch lady at a nursing home, and that her mom, the Boston businesswoman, was actually a drunk that she hadn’t heard from in over a year? Would Kathleen still gush about going to Buenos Aires? Would Sasha confide her crush on Asher? Would Gunther, Asher, and Tyler want her around? What about Marcus? He held his drink in one hand and Irina’s in the other and stood over everyone, saying something to Kathleen. Would he still want to date her? Move in with her? Or would he see her differently? Consider her not good enough? Someone he shouldn’t have had brought home to his parents, someone to hide.
They all laughed and drank with ease. Their motions fluid and easy. Sasha smirked and then covered a snort with her hand as her eyes scrunched together. Asher grumbled as he spat out a cherry stem, and Gunther held up his tied stem with triumph. Marcus spoke to Tyler and Diana, his words making them smile. A tug of jealousy pulled somewhere deep within Irina’s chest. None of them had to pretend. They were the same people here as they would be when they got home at the end of the night. They weren’t putting on a show, slipping in and out of character. They just existed. Her eyes switched focus to her reflection in the glass. Ella gazed back at her, just as serene and natural as the rest of them. But Irina knew that wasn’t true, and that secret weighed her down.
Marcus stepped away from the others, and Irina snapped her head away from the windows. Marcus came up to the table. Irina heard Ella speak, her voice smooth and calm, happy and reassuring. Marcus’s brown hair came to life in the wind, specks of red light from the lamp by their table mixing in with it, making it look like he’d gotten a funny dye job. She focused on his facial features, deep-set eyes, strong Roman nose, slight stubble, and was filled with a sense of security. She held his hand tighter and realized she never wanted to let go.
Irina’s cheeks burned against the breeze, and she reached for her drink. It was bitter and left an icy trail as it snaked down her throat. She shivered back into reality and took another steadying sip. Marcus intertwined his fingers with hers and brought her hand up to kiss it. She smiled, tracing small circles on his hand with her thumb. “Guess what Sasha told me in there,” Irina said.
“That she likes Asher?”
“It’s so obvious, isn’t it?”
“Do you think Asher knows?” Marcus asked.
“Nah, he’s the least observant person I’ve ever met. She could full-on make out with him, and he still wouldn’t get it.”
“Well, good luck to them. I won’t tell Asher anything, don’t worry.”
“Of course not, and don’t tell Sasha I told you how she feels.” Since they’d started dating, they had a little gossip pact. Whatever they said to each other, even if it was about their friends, stayed between them. Sometimes they’d even place bets on things like if Kathleen would give Diana back her belt within the next two weeks or for how long Gunther could get away with stealing his boss’s protein bars from the office kitchen.
“I bet she’ll tell him by the end of summer,” Marcus said.
“I think she’ll wait.”
“Asher’s with a new girl every week in the summer. She’ll see enough of that and reconsider.”
“Or it’ll push her to confess sooner.”
“Okay, I bet she’ll tell him after summer, around October or November.” Irina held out her hand, and Marcus shook it. “Do we realistically even want them to get together? Asher’s great as a friend but dating him seems awful.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t make the smartest choices.”
“Like his Vegas trip was wild, he wouldn’t even tell me how much he lost or what he did,” Irina said.
“Upwards of 10K, and a good chunk of that went to strippers.” A breeze swept past Irina’s face, bringing with it the smell of alcohol and someone’s old-lady perfume.
“Good luck, Sasha.”
“You haven’t been to Vegas, right?”
“No, not yet.”
Marcus let the smile that had been itching at the corners of his mouth extend across his face, dimpling his left cheek.
“What? I can tell you’re hiding something.” Irina grinned and leaned in closer to him, remembering that he had something he wanted to tell her.
“I got us tickets for next weekend. We leave on Friday and fly back Sunday night.”
“No way, you’re fucking with me.”
“I’m serious. You can be my good-luck charm. I can’t lose when you’re around.”
“Don’t jinx it,” she said and put the hand he wasn’t already holding on top of his. “I’d love to go with you.” Her heart thudded with excitement. “What’s the occasion?”
“I thought it would be a great place to celebrate.” Marcus’s eyes watched hers in anticipation. Irina’s mind began to race with possibilities. Was his roommate moving out sooner than planned? Did he adopt a puppy? Or a cat? He’d been talking about getting a pet.
“What are we celebrating?”
“Well, my dad liked you a lot back when I introduced you guys, so I showed him your résumé. He was impressed and decided to take both of us on as interns next semester. You’ll still have to interview, but it’s just for show. We got it,” Marcus said. Irina’s breath caught in her throat. She’d been applying to internships like crazy, along with everyone else in their program. She had hoped that Marcus would offer to have his dad put in a good word or write a letter of recommendation, but she never imagined he’d get his dad to hire her like this.
“Holy shit, Marcus, that’s amazing! Thank you. I don’t know what to say. Honestly, this is huge.” Tears began to well up in her eyes, and she blinked them away. Everything was falling into place. All her planning and effort had amounted to this. With an elite internship and Marcus’s dad as a supervisor, any engineering graduate program would be happy to accept her. “Are you sure your dad is okay with this?”
“Yes, of course. I told him how you helped me study and how smart you are. You get stuff right away that takes me days to understand. You’re gonna be great.”
“Thank you. This is insane.”
“No, my dad would be insane not to hire you.” He signaled to the waiter to get another round. Marcus slipped into excited talk about the details of the internship and what he wanted to do in Vegas. “There’s no one I’d rather be going with,” he said.
“Me too, we’re gonna have the best time.” He continued making plans. Irina had Ella match his emotions, mirroring back his admiration and love so he would think they were her own. She was in awe that everything had worked out as she had wanted. She pictured her dad’s face when she would break the good news to him. He’d be proud, and she’d get to see that look he got whenever she told him anything that signaled her academic success. It was more than an expression, something like a youthful lightness that shone through his eyes and spread across his face. He would regard her not as a dad but as the twenty-one-year-old who had first come to America from Poland with dreams of a better life. He had come a long way from his tiny village and seeing that she was on track to go even further brought all of that old hope back to him.
But underneath her happiness was guilt. Marcus had given Ella the internship, not Irina. She felt as though she was living a life that wasn’t meant to be within her reach. How long would she be able to keep this façade going? Ella wasn’t supposed to go this far, to have a boyfriend and close friends. Their trust would be broken if they found out the truth. She wished she hadn’t lied to them in the first place, especially to Marcus. Maybe they would have liked her anyway. But what if they hadn’t? Where would she be without them? Using Ella had become so normal that not once had she thought to question her or think of what she would do when the people she met, who she thought would flit in and out of her life, ended up staying.
Marcus felt far away. Flimsy and unstable, as though at any moment their hands would separate and he’d float over the railing. He was drunk, telling her how he thought of them as two puzzle pieces. “I’m so lucky to have found someone who’s ambitious and loves the same things as me. You know that dream I told you about?” He was referring to owning his own engineering firm one day, having a huge office with leather-clad chairs, a vintage globe, windows overlooking the city, and a decanter of brandy, in which he would meet with clients and mentor interns. Ella said she remembered and that it was a very reachable goal. “I’m glad we’re both engineers because you can be in that picture with me. That’s the one thing it was missing. You.” Would he still say that if he knew the truth? Or would his expression change from adoration to confusion and then to anger? Would he go inside and tell everyone what an awful person she was? A liar, a gold digger, an imposter. They’d gasp and gawk at her through the glass. She couldn’t bear to lose him.
“Maybe we can find a way to sneak into your dad’s office while we’re there and pretend it’s yours. That could be fun,” Ella said.
“You mean pretend it’s ours.”
“Ours.” She tried the word out on her tongue and rolled the short syllable, trying to make it last.
The next morning, Irina woke up before sunrise. Her head throbbed, and her stomach felt wrong. She should have eaten something before drinking last night. Irina curled up into a ball and tried to disappear into Marcus’s bed, wanting to get a couple more hours of sleep before having to face the inevitable pain of her hangover. She scrunched her eyes shut and tried to focus on her breathing, but all she heard was Marcus’s snoring. It seemed to match her head’s pulsing discomfort, and the more energy she put into ignoring it, the more annoying it became. “Fuck.” She rolled the covers off and tiptoed out of his room.
In the bathroom, she turned on the tap to mask the sound of her throwing up. She vomited straight alcohol. It burned her throat and made her eyes water as she struggled to catch her breath against the heaving. Her skin was slick with sweat when she was done, and she rinsed it off before brushing her teeth. She cleaned her face, put on some concealer, blush, and a tinted lip balm, and brushed out her hair until she appeared well-rested and rosy-cheeked.
As awful as throwing up was, it was necessary to feel better. She left the bathroom no longer sweating or having stomach pains and wandered to the kitchen. She chugged a glass of water and started up Marcus’s Nespresso while imagining what living there would be like.
She saw herself sitting cross-legged on the sofa with her laptop, writing papers, sipping coffee, and resting her eyes on the view past the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that made up two of the four walls, now covered by curtains. Marcus would recline next to her, doing work or reading. She would paint her nails on the kitchen island as the television played an old 2000s movie. She’d fill the wall above the potted lemon tree with a vintage movie poster. She’d host girls’ nights where she, Diana, Sasha, and Kathleen would drink cocktails and do face masks. She’d sip wine and watch Marcus paint on Sunday nights, and maybe, after living here for a while, she’d feel secure enough, close enough to being Ella, to let him paint her as he kept asking to do, without the fear that under such scrutiny, he would somehow piece together her falseness. The thought of a version of herself that could have every minuscule detail analyzed, be exposed and vulnerable, made Irina hopeful.
Living here, finishing her degree, having that internship, and going to grad school would allow Irina to merge with Ella. She’d have to pretend less and less until not at all. The smell of coffee warmed the room, working against the AC humming in the background of her thoughts. She walked to the curtains that covered the windowed walls and flung them apart.
The rising sun filled the room with a white and blue glow. It gleamed off the coffee table and was absorbed by the white couch, making it flush against the shadows of the kitchen.
Outside, the windows of similar apartments surrounded her. Some of them lit up warm yellow, signaling that she wasn’t the only early riser. Irina pictured men and women, some of them hungover, waking up with a grunt and a jolt, children jumping on their beds, dogs sneaking off furniture before their owners awoke. Water gurgled down sinks, toilets flushed, toasters popped, and kettles whistled. The sun inched further into the sky, each minute working to replace the bleak blue with purple that would soon become pink.
“Good morning, love.” She hadn’t heard Marcus come up behind her. He kissed Irina’s cheek and hugged her. Without realizing it, he put pressure on her body, pushing her forwards and making her hold her hand out against the window to catch herself. He leaned into her, forcing her hand tighter against the chilled glass. Irina glanced down at the street. She’d seen this view hundreds of times before, but now, with her full weight pushing into her hand, she became aware of how high up she was. Uneasiness crept into her body. Wispy thoughts of the glass cracking gained momentum until they clamored within her. Irina felt dizzy as the window appeared to tilt forwards. She felt as though her life could break through the glass at any minute. She struggled to keep her balance and feared throwing up again.
“Good morning,” she said. More lights switched on outside and mingled with the pinkish golden glow of the sky. Marcus turned her around and engulfed her in another embrace. She sank into him, burying her face in his shirt that smelled of sleep and traces of cologne. Irina took a step back and brushed her cold hand against his warm, groggy face. “I made coffee. Do you want some?”
Spring / Summer 2023
Marta Karpuk is a Polish-American writer who focuses on relationships, the experience of women, and the process of growing up and maturing into adulthood. She got her MFA from The New School and currently lives in NYC. In her free time, she loves to travel and spend time with her schnoodle.
Dietmar Busse (b. 1966) lives and works in New York. He was born in Stolzenau, Germany and as a young man learned the world of photography in Madrid before relocating to New York in 1991. His work has been included in group exhibitions at the Museum Schloss Moyland, Bedburg-Hau, Germany; Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam; Invisible-Exports, New York; Museum Sinclair Haus, Bad Homburg; the Leslie Lohman Museum, New York, among other venues. His work has been publicized in The New Yorker, TIME, The London Independent, The New York Times Magazine and Interview, among other publications. Dietmar's work is on view at Fierman Gallery, NY in his solo exhibition GARTEN through June 25, 2023.