Art by Sacha Baumann
They first said “I love you” absent the words.
Sabine buried her head in Andrea’s lap until she could smell her through the luon. Three aromas made the city worth it: the medicinal pine of the graveyard shift janitors at Radio City, the amusing char of a subway track fire, and her girlfriend seeping through her pants. Andrea, remembering how to breathe, finally sighed, only to forget again upon exhalation.
Sabine, enjoying the game, ignored Andrea’s antiphon. She pressed her face nearer to her cunt.
Outside, snow blanketed down. Arman, their landlord, had predicted the blizzard a week earlier. He was always right. Trusting his weathervane above the rest, they spent that weekend indoors. There were presents to wrap, a Christmas card photo to stage.
Bleary-eyed and content after a warm breakfast, Sabine divulged to Andrea that, while still a teen living elsewhere, her greatest dream had been to walk through a fresh snowfall in Central Park. In the fantasy, she was with a striking woman with whom she was madly in love. Sabine cringed as she shared its final detail: they were wearing pea coats and riding boots. She did not tell Andrea she had gone so far as pleasuring herself to the thought. Even in youth, she’d been seduced by synchronization, by crisp movements, and by stage setting. In a word, performance.
Andrea smiled. “You’ve been here since you were eighteen. You live in Manhattan. You’ve dated your fair share of women.” She waited for Sabine to explain. She didn’t.
Andrea stood, gingerly sliding Sabine’s head from her lap. She beckoned her to the bedroom to get dressed. They were going on a walk, she announced. Frustrated but in love, Sabine rose.
The fashions had changed since pubescence. Sabine wore her favorite Norwegian scarf and cowboy boots; Andrea wore a Fordham University sweater and a pair of skillfully-shoplifted Frye motorcycle boots from the same unremarkable era. While Sabine guarded videos of her past performances closely, Andrea had freely shown her the blurry flip phone footage of her as a Gamma: clapping, chanting, and stomping booted feet in time with her fellow sorority sisters. A reggaeton song played as the army of Latinas in pink and purple executed the Panhellenic ritual.
“Just the usual Boricua foolery. Nothing too special,” Andrea commented as Sabine watched, face tensing. Was it judgement? Her lips pulled back from her teeth. She was smiling.
“But look at how well you moved together,” Sabine marveled.
The townhomes lining Central Park were lit from within by Christmas trees that had yet to be taken down. The lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day subdued people. Sabine included.
Four lines of bootprints trailed faithfully after them. Andrea pressed Sabine against Caroll’s Alice. Pleased with herself, Andrea removed her mittens with her teeth. “I hate these things,” she muttered, mouth full of snow and polyester.
Sabine shuddered against the thoughtful woman’s icebox palms as they found her waistband. She came quickly and wondered whether any tourists noticed as she sunk with a cry into Andrea’s firm embrace.
Somehow, it had been safe to touch.
They first said “I love you” absent the words.
Willy snatched the cigarette from Laura’s mouth on the corner of Waverly and West 10th. She flung it into the slush and ground it to a froth under her penny loafer. The woman felt foolish for thinking mistletoe and clean linens were enough. Then, she felt tyrannical for wanting them to be enough. Weekend after weekend, Laura visited the city. Weekend after weekend, she found new spots to fritter away the hours that weren’t Willy’s bedroom with women who weren’t Willy.
She’d been there and done that years before, but seeing Laura try her heart’s luck at Sea Colony, Bagatelle, Gianni’s, and all the other women’s bars had been difficult. It was winter: Willy’s nails were still lipstick red from the magazine’s holiday party—good, clean fun with twenty-seven of her similarly world-weary colleagues. 1962 had been a hell of a year. The Cuban embargo. The Boeing crash at New York International, followed by another in Paris. Her absence from the ongoing newspaper strike’s picket lines was less a matter of principle than it was of stock: glossies like hers had been spared. Then, just when Willy thought she’d caught a break, there had been the boiler explosion at New York Telephone Company that stranded the journalist and her yellow notepad uptown for days. Still, they’d found time to have baked Alaska, bad singing, a gift exchange.
A man, continuing his Friday night bar hop, whistled at them. Willy pulled her sherpa coat closed around her flannel skirt. She tucked Laura’s chapped hands into its pockets. She’d become enervated watching Laura cut her teeth in the scene. Never one to look too closely when a gestalt caused pain, Willy imagined women in three-piece suits and fewer than three dollars in the bank pawing at Laura’s bottom. She imagined them trying to impress her, the first Negro woman they’d ever considered lusting after, with the word about town on Lorraine Hansberry’s latest play. There were reasons she didn’t think about it. Equally stressful was articulating protectiveness without it seeming like jealousy. She only wanted Laura to feel pleasure. None would be found in inebriated slow dances and forgotten neckings on Christopher Street; assuming the vice squad didn’t get to Laura first. Willy never doubted a woman’s treatment at her own hands. This only made Laura’s straying all the more worrisome; would she be able to realize a good thing without first becoming a mistress of the dark? A turn of phrase, inspired by a pulp novel she’d been paging through at night, came to mind: Baby, do you know what we do to good Westchester girls like you down here in the Village?
“Honey. Your lipstick’s all smudged,” Willy said, fretting and licking her fingertip to wipe away some indolent bulldagger’s damage. “Screw it,” she said, pressing her mouth to Laura’s, tasting that night’s suitors. It was never as simple as sharing Laura; that didn’t bug her. All she wanted was a small, active part of the woman without having to beg.
Willy hailed them a cab. At her place, she prepared Laura a bath and mixed her a hot toddy. She crouched on the bathroom floor and read Nightwood until the water ran cold. It was the closest she’d ever come to asking Laura outright to stay, please.
Dripping and sobered, Laura finally spoke while Willy tied her own bathrobe around her guest’s waist. “Thank you, Wilhelmina. No one, from the cradle to now, has ever drawn me a bath. Or read to me.”
She stroked Laura’s hair until the girl fell asleep. Somehow, it had been safe to touch.
Sabine, certain that the call was about being named captain, sprinted one more block as her phone tickled her bicep. It was July, as it always was when such decisions came down from the fossilized bosses at Radio City. She flew past a sign for West 39th Street and another for West 38th before stopping. Sabine hated doing anything other than running while running; the choreography of public health was too new to her—the freeing of her arm from the elastic case, the retrieval of the phone within, the removal of a facemask from one ear so it temporarily dangled from the other, the extended act of not only detangling headphones from a windbreaker’s zipper, but now detangling the mask’s elastic earbands, too. Breathless and irritated, she fumbled through the line dance.
The phone’s glass screen soothed her temple. By the time she’d answered, “It’s Sabine,” she’d cooled off and the device had warmed up. Greased with sweat, it slid down her cheekbone. None of it mattered, she told herself. She’d perspired plenty in preparation. There’d been sweat, breakouts, even aches. What mattered was this moment, stooped over beside the overflowing trash cans outside Penn Station, mid-morning run. She liked her voice. The city had made her airy, her gentle inflection pluckier with more bold punctuation; there’d been no other option if she was going to feel heard in New York.
It felt good to speak again in public.
By 32, Sabine had perfected her fantasy of how she would receive the news of becoming captain. She’d be on holiday with her girlfriend and a young lover in Luxembourg. The call from Radio City would reach a pettish concierge at Hotel Sofitel, who would then relay the information briskly. She and Andrea would be having sex. She would initiate. Andrea, bursting forth from the ornate locket of her Catholic education, would retaliate tenfold. She would reach and reach and reach inside of Sabine while the dancer picked up the gilded receiver. While swallowing back a whimper, Sabine would learn that she’d been named one of four captains. She would be tasked with modeling image, poise, and precision for the eighty girls in the troupe—namely, image. Together, Sabine and Andrea would share this professional apex. Sabine’s body would grow taut with pride; she’d become a toy soldier: prone, collapsing in sync with the others. Then and only then would Andrea really know what it was like to fuck a Rockette.
Later, she would catch Andrea in some repentant act: a closed-eyed prayer while reading, a persistent refusal to sip Kina L'Avion d'Or on the hotel’s veranda. Sabine would draw attention to it. The women and a waiter would share a laugh at Andrea’s expense. The critic could handle it.
Sabine always imagined herself feeling so beautiful when the words met her ears. She stared down at her pilling running shorts and her knobby knees, absent the veneer of a nude leotard. She could smell Penn Station. It reeked. She decided that, today, she liked that. A man in a business suit passed, calling back over his shoulder, nice legs. They always did. Men were the primary reason she enjoyed her knees so much, ashen and disfigured though they were. It wasn’t in the male instinct to look so closely. Nor was it in hers to permit them the luxury. Sabine hungered for a line of masks that could contain men as well as they did other plagues.
She looked up. This was New York, in all its colors. Distempered, empowered, prostrate, and—now—sick. Still, it was the years before that mattered most. The years of summer intensives in college, followed by years of being an usher, followed by a few more years as an alternate. Now, it was 1,200 kicks a day, 1,500 bucks a week, to the tune of 200 shows a season. That the good news would come while she was on her own, far away from the one-bedroom she shared with Andrea in Hell’s Kitchen, made her feel good. Sabine still had herself. And with this call, the summit of her solo expedition was in sight.
“Sabine, I hate to be the one to tell you.” The production’s CFO inhaled. “But the Spectacular’s been called off.”
Wilhelmina greeted Laura Beth on the crowded inbound train platform, as she always did. Laura hugged her and complimented her outfit, as she always did. They did not speak until they ascended the platform, as they always did. Pennsylvania Station, with her stray conversations and booming boarding calls, forced this silent meditation on them. Although this was their last call for talking, the women did not blame the station that linked Willy’s Village with Laura’s New Rochelle. How could they? Penn Station had been a reliable friend during the most uncertain of years.
In a final telephone call, the women agreed to take a coffee and talk things through in public, where tears would be abated by a roaming public. Climbing the stairs, Willy held the blue cup with the Grecian ornamentation between clasped hands. She drank it dry. In moments of silence, she would reach for the final drops again out of habit.
Commuters, sauntering off to weekend business meetings and baseball games, wove around the two women who conversed in Pennsylvania Station’s waiting room. Willy and Laura’s expressions—low glowers, exasperated sighs, tentative smiles—went undetected by the moment’s travelers. Laura leaned against an iron lamppost and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from her hound’s-tooth dress. Feet shoulder-width apart, Willy lost herself in the magazine covers littering an adjacent newsstand. The U.S. had joined a coalition of countries in banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, one cover noted. It was old news. She knew because she’d written it.
Willy and Laura were not immune to catching the eyes of passersby, though none lingered long enough to see either woman blink. In this honeyed, marble castle, they were fixtures; ornate human bodies, laden with the potential of their late and early twenties, respectfully. They were frozen at the cusp of their own voyages. Celebrating motion’s electricity required a contrasting stillness. Their idling reminded commuters of the alternative. To them, Laura and Wilhelmina may as well have been dust particles suspended in the light beneath the vaulted ceilings, or two of the imposing granite eagles perched on the edifice’s exterior: regal, motionless, and doomed.
“I really wish you found me more capable.”
“I’m just concerned, is all. For you and your...” Wilhelmina began, struggling to find the word. Confidantes? Lovers? Comrades? Good Lord, how things had changed since she was twenty-two. “...friends,” she decided. “And it will be getting cold soon. Have you ever built a fire before?”
“Yes, my grandmother taught me.”
“When was the last time you went fishing? Have you ever cleaned a pickerel?”
“Willy, please don’t behave as though you’re the only former Girl Scout in New York. It’s condescending.”
“I am not. Besides, I was a Camp Fire Girl. And I remember absolutely none of it. Hence my worry.” She frowned, throwing her long braid over her clavicle with a sharp twist of her neck. “But maybe Sandra, with her ex-husband’s bottomless bank accounts, remembers something from her tenure. And if not, someone with forestry knowledge can always be bought. I’m sure some little farmboy up in Poughkeepsie will be glad to make some pocket change serving as the womanists’ Shabbos Goy.”
Laura paused to gulp, as though the statement provoked indigestion. Wilhelmina resented the way her eyes took to Laura’s long throat. She loved the muffled pop of her swallow.
“Her name is Sharon. Sharon Abramczyk. She was a Girl Scout. She remembers a great deal of the survival training, actually. And I doubt she’d appreciate your anti-Semitism.”
“I would be astounded if she found anything about me of value,” Willy murmured, folding her arms across her waist in resignation. Through closed lips, she transmitted the saddest smile. Laura received it. She studied the pressed creases in Willy’s trousers, the way their rise met her ribcage; how her crisp blouse was bound within; that swipe of lipstick that she’d matched to her cherryfruit earrings. She was from a different time, Laura now understood. Despite having six years on Laura, Willy was still caught up in being so much of a woman that she cast a shadow on men. She was so proudly Italian, so spry, so built to fit into the small spaces that everyone else avoided for fear of dirtying their nails. When the tomboys in the Village lost a baseball in the storm drains, they came crying to Wilhelmina. Twenty years ago, she would’ve been perfectly suited for building bombs to end fascists—now, there was just the shame of napalm.
Yet her mannishness remained at odds with a fading era’s maternal nurture and stern unconditional love. It was a beautiful negotiation, Laura conceded. Willy always looked like she could be plucked off the street and be fit to interview Dick Nixon. But now, there weren’t even any papers in New York City to pitch such an assignment; no salient reason to continue being everyone at once. There were better ways to live than endlessly balancing one’s self on the Garden of Eden’s scales.
“But survival isn’t all about basic needs,” Laura began carefully. “It’s about stopping to think about what I want. To both think and feel my way through the world and live to tell the tale, Willy.”
“I understand, but this feels so extreme. I wish you’d just taken up hiking.” Willy pressed her hands into the satin linings of her trouser pockets.
“Feminism, I am learning, is a necessary extreme. Did you know the suffragists were imprisoned and force-fed?”
“I did, darling. However, I have my doubts that the Dutchess County Sheriff has such plans in store for the lot of you. Even if none of you bathe regularly.”
Wilhelmina watched her lover fidget. Laura’s long fingers slithered around the girth of her pink handbag. Clutch and release. Clutch and release. She had witnessed this nervous symphony somewhere before. That past July, the two women had seen Marnie together at the Paris Theater. Before Laura found feminism, she still valued appearance above all else, and had grown obsessed with the clutch that Tippi Hedren carried in the first scene. Treated as a stand-in for Hedren’s own profile, it was as yellow as the sun, with simple stitching and ends shaped like a fortune cookie. As Marnie departed the scene of her burglary at the brisk, assertive pace of a New Yorker, the purse moved jerkily under the Hitchcock muse’s arm.
“It looks like you when your knees fall open,” Laura had whispered to Willy during a moment of exhibitionism in the dim auditorium. With Wilhelmina’s roommates home and Laura due back in New Rochelle for Sunday dinner with her parents, they’d not been able to undress together that evening. After she’d seen Laura off at Pennsylvania Station, Willy—thighs still damp from the cinema—ran up and down Fifth Avenue, breaking a sweat in the futile search for a pocketbook that looked like a snatch. Why give Laura the real thing when she could give her the real thing and its symbol? After a payphone call to the magazine’s style editor, she was victorious. Gifts to women were a way of thinking and feeling, of curating infatuation, of—she supposed—surviving.
She listened now as Laura patiently rearticulated her motives for leaving: that she would never be able to afford a life outside of her father’s home and have a real career and that therefore moving upstate was her best option. Though the seven-bedroom clapboard house had outdoor plumbing and though the sleeping arrangements resembled summer camp, the home in Poughkeepsie was on a sprawling piece of land ripe with potential.
Laura wasn’t even certain if she liked New York City, she confessed again. This hurt Willy just as much as the first time she had said it. Laura feared the city’s men, who had stolen her handbags and cornered her in public washrooms. She loved driving, she explained again, but hated doing so in the city, with its relentless red lights and the interwoven spectacle of being a colored woman behind the wheel of her father’s long, lean Buick. And while she adored The New York Herald Tribune, the prospect of living in a press-less city—even if the year’s lack of news was instigated by workers going on strike—felt grim, a sign of even worse fates to come. Rome was burning. The quality of Laura’s arguments for leaving the city declined as she went on, until she attributed their split to the destruction of Pennsylvania Station herself.
Willy was dumbfounded. At the magazine, she’d prioritized trying assignments on Alabama’s newly-elected Governor over the simple little sidebar on Pennsylvania Station’s scheduled demolition. Willy knew she would have to write about it soon enough; the first jackhammers would plunge into her granite and marble the next week.
Laura, of course, knew that Willy was struggling with losing this Athenaeum of bodies. It was amoral for her to attribute their downfall to the destruction of this architectural monument. Yet, in a critique-eluding simper, Laura did it so well: even if her primary mode of visiting Willy was not compromised, she reasoned, the station itself would still change; everything about the city would change.
“You can’t remove the heart and expect blood to keep flowing as it once did,” Laura observed, averting her green eyes guiltily. Willy daydreamed the taste of blood in her mouth. Her stomach turned with the burden of Pennsylvania Station’s failed salvation, and Laura’s departure by proxy; a disturbance that, deep down, she understood should only be suffered by Mayor Wagner, the destructive fuck. None of it was fair, but no one certainly ever dared to call New York a fair city. That was why she loved it: being born with nothing, she stood a chance of improbably weaseling her way into everything. It was a rude awakening, this realization that life typically plays out somewhere in the bittersweet in-between. But New York City, she felt certain, would always be her home.
There would be years of noisy demolition followed by years of noisy construction; all requiring an excess of dirty, filthy men in hardhats. For Laura, the woods were the only alternative. Willy had never before wanted a woman who was making a concerted effort to abandon her, and certainly not one who continually left her to head in the direction of other women, plural. Her brow unfurrowed. She attempted, once more, to make sense of Laura’s logic.
She couldn’t. It all seemed so foolish.
“I’ve always seen New York as the perfect place to survive, in part because it makes doing so very difficult,” Wilhelmina explained. “When I succeed—and I do most days—I coast on that wave of victory for weeks. It makes me feel like the king of it all.” She inhaled deeply while admiring those familiar Corinthian columns, catching wafts of a commuter’s Shalimar, of Laura’s Rive Gauche, and of dust particles. The cleanest air the world has to offer, she thought. They should make this place into a hospital. Or a sanitarium. At this rate, I’d check myself in.
“I love that you have that here,” Laura replied. “I fear I never will. I… I never will,” she said, startling herself by believing the words she spoke. “Instability does not make me feel stable. Only unstable.” She inhaled deeply, took Willy’s hand, and met her gaze.
They looked at one another remorsefully.
“You said you want to think and feel. Which one do you sense yourself doing most with me?”
Laura looked around, then moved grandly, cupping Willy’s cheek in her palm. “The problem with courtship,” she began, stopping to swallow again, as though the term had evoked the Queen of England and she needed to pause to pay reverence with a curtsy and nervous gulp. “Not just ours, mind you, but everyone’s,” she clarified, “Is that I never stop to think what I want. I feel my way through, Willy. I feel until the moment I do not feel quite as much, but by then it is too late to think and change course. All I do is feel for you. I’ve trapped myself in a shadowbox,” Laura said, releasing Willy’s blushed cheek. “And now that it is disintegrating, and I can see outside of it, it is only natural that I stretch my wings a bit.”
“I see,” Willy said, expertly staving off both the urge to cry and the competing urge to bitterly call Laura Madame Butterfly. “Do you think they have these problems?” She asked Laura, nodding toward the populus walking down Pennsylvania Station’s corridors during her final weekend intact. “Or is it only us?”
“It is normal to become excited when getting to know new people. Perhaps we become more excited because meeting other women can be tricky for us.”
“Says the competent truffle pig,” Willy murmured.
“I’ll have you know that I’ve been more successful with mushrooms,” Laura replied. “But I do not know if self-awareness makes us ill. If anything, perhaps it makes us far more normal than them.” They watched an older woman, Polish and well-furred, order a croissant from one of the vendors lining the marble promenade, only to return it and command it be rewarmed. The attendant held his people-pleasing smile so forcefully that Willy was sure his teeth would crack under the weight of his muscled jaw.
“I think we could stand to be more logical. Like men. I hate being a woman.”
“I love that you’re a woman. I love that you are this particular woman.”
“I have been doing this for years, Willy. I am exhausted with myself.”
“What you’re exhausted by might be living in a man’s world. Not womanhood.” Willy hesitated. “Poughkeepsie will be healthy for you,” she finally conceded.
They stood in silence. Willy kept her eyes open to the magazine stand before her, the swirl of commuters, and the sixty-foot columns until they fed into one another, becoming nothing. She realized this is how she would survive, cope, move on, and deal with the imminent disaster befalling this place. She would look so closely that all the sharp corners became smooth, emptying them of the ambitious atmosphere and promises of success they once held. Laura was just a woman; Pennsylvania Station, just a building.
“Well. Dare I ask how you are feeling right now?”
“Exhausted. The train from New Rochelle was hell. I’d kill to be lying down.”
“And what are you thinking right now?”
“That if you don’t stop asking me questions and kiss me good-bye properly, I might just have you killed.”
Willy looked at her wristwatch. Laura’s train would not depart until the witching hour. “Let’s rest then. You have time. And you’ll have plenty of time for thinking on the train.”
Willy took Laura’s suitcase in one hand and offered her the other. Laura, smiling, accepted. While tucking Laura’s hatbox under her arm, Willy noticed it was marked with her name and path: Pennsylvania Station to Poughkeepsie. A one-way ticket to the utopic motherland where women never shaved and men never forayed.
She’d take her city in tatters.
The night the Christmas Spectacular was called off, Sabine watched Suspiria with Andrea. The second night, they watched the Suspiria remake. Instinctively, Sabine and Andrea picked a fight with one another over which Suspiria was superior. Sabine preferred Luca Guadagnino’s later attempt at depicting the Berlin dance company’s bewitching underbelly. After Andrea began reading aloud from Fear: The Autobiography of Dario Argento to mount a defense of the original, Sabine noted that sparring about art was not fun without an audience. They would not have another audience until it was safe to throw house parties again, so they should perhaps put these debates in the same post-pandemic category as the Christmas Spectacular, trips to the cinema, and casual sex with strange women.
Grinning, Andrea tossed the paperback onto the living room floor, grabbed Sabine by the face with open palms, and kissed her.
“Anything for you,” Andrea offered. “Anything for you.”
Grateful, Sabine opened her mouth to her girlfriend’s. She closed her eyes, ready to be taken, but stopped when her tongue brushed against Andrea’s incisors. She tried again, but Andrea’s mouth remained closed. Well, not anything, apparently, Sabine thought. Turned on but too proud to admit it, she excused herself to make a smoothie.
Both women desired attention, yet had the misfortune of receiving more of the wrong sort than they were poised to handle. In the company of Andrea’s friends, Sabine was Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture brought to life as she stepped over partygoers en route to the bathroom. Guests would forget her name and simply cry, “Hey, Rocky! Rockette! Roxie!” Frequently, she was asked to autograph obscure household items and perform high kicks. She was always gracious, humoring them until there wasn’t a high kick left in her. Then, she’d stage the deftest of Irish exits.
Around Sabine’s friends, all of whom were performers, Andrea struggled similarly with ontological reduction. But instead of her legs, she was minimized to her mind. Dancers treated the theatre critic like royalty, offering her their seats but otherwise steering clear of her.
“Please tell me I’m not ugly,” Andrea had once pleaded to Sabine during one such party, after three plastic flutes of whatever bottle they were on. She had cornered her girlfriend in their kitchenette and taken her by the hands. “These women make me feel like the Erik to your Christine.”
“No, honey. You’re not ugly. You’re something far worse. You’re a smart broad,” she had reassured her.
On occasions when Andrea felt compelled to speak at length, the crowd would go mute so quickly that she would lose her train of thought, stumbling over her words. She wished to be a conversationalist, not an orator: it was important that the audience at least pretend to be in on the whole thing—that they at least pretend to be her friends. Her treasured public argumentation with Sabine, even if delivered in affects plagiarized from Tallulah Bankhead, became a welcome reprieve from work for both women; a way of setting a stage that was enrapturing. They played the heroines and then cleared the stage away once everyone had their fill. That dynamic was off the table now. They would have to find different—separate—stages.
On the third day after the Christmas Spectacular’s cancellation, Sabine went for a run at 10 am and returned home at 4 pm. She’d left her phone behind. There were five missed calls from Andrea.
On the fourth day, Sabine rang Trudy while Andrea was away.
“I miss you,” she whimpered in response to the woman’s brusque hello.
“My little girl,” she said, her words dripping knowingly from somewhere across town. “Don’t I know it. It’s so good to hear your voice—and even better to know you still have one.”
“Hasn’t killed me yet.” She wanted to tell Trudy Jensen everything, but it felt wrong to notify someone who had picketed for fair pay and color on the line that the Rockettes were once again imperiled. Trudy was 78: she had already given her whole heart and both knees.
“How is your lady love?”
“She’s good. Out buying a new television. She thinks watching The Music Man on 4K or Blu-Ray or whatever the heck will keep me sane.”
Trudy cackled. “I can’t with song and dance movies. I’d just rather be dancing.”
On the fifth day, Sabine did floor exercises while Andrea went into Midtown to retrieve a document from The Post’s server. An exercise ball under her bottom, she wondered mid-crunch how her preferred Suspiria’s Berlin compared to the real Berlin of the same period. Over her years with the Rockettes, she’d frequently deliberated about whether one could ever really know the unvarnished history of anywhere. History was best obtained through motion than study, Sabine felt. It was impossible to enter Radio City’s stage door without feeling a gooseflesh prickle greeting from past dancers. She’d lived for that reminder of lineage, of nearly a hundred years and thousands of girls, all queer enough to live every day like it was Christmas.
So much of the New York that Sabine shared with Andrea was like the New York of the movies. At times, they would joke about it, reveling in their surface-level fates: The New York Post theatre critic and the Rockette—two girls who’d strong-armed their ways into the city’s stalwart institutions. Their giggles would dissipate when they realized that their salaries and their audiences would have been greater in the past. In many ways, Trudy’d had it better.
They would find other ways to continue this threesome, Sabine decided: Sabine, Andrea, and the City. Catching herself doing leg raises in time with a passing ambulance, she began to cry. She too would rather be dancing.
There were ways for a broad to get a room at the Waldorf-Astoria without a husband’s credit card, such as frequent cocktails with a drippy editor after work that helped ingratiate one with a cheery receptionist and also certain attire, like a reluctantly zipped dress with a drop waist and a snappy pair of slingback heels. Willy had done both, but she often merely settled for the old college try: the tone of a governess and a gumshoe’s gaze. Be no one, just someone passing through. She squeezed Laura’s hand and asked her to remain at the cocktail lounge with Cole Porter’s piano until the room key was in hand.
The concierge asked her to spell her whole name. Tiring, she slapped her driver’s license on the countertop.
“Alright, Wilhelmina…Elaine Lombardi.”
The concierge replaced the register’s receipt paper several times. Willy felt the urge to pace. She looked over her shoulder, past the grand foyer and the chandelier, past the pane of glass and the broad bodies of the doormen. She caught a blur of the black and white dress suit through the revolving door. Bundling herself against the October bluster, Laura was holding a cigarette. She would wait on Willy once more and then never again. One cigarette’s length. Willy would learn to live with that.
In break-ups, Sabine could never tell how the sex was going to go. With some women, they’d fucked from the moment of separation until her bags had been out the door. With others, the break-up sex bled into new leases. Brand new mattresses had been permanently tainted by inexplicable impulse. With Andrea, things were different. There’d been no wrapping their legs around one another in sorrow. There were only conversations about miscommunications which led to new miscommunications.
In August, Sabine found a room just big enough for a full bed with a troupemate in Washington Heights. It would be a break. Weeks passed. The time spent away did not feel long enough. Over the phone, Sabine asked Andrea whether the way they spoke to one another would ever reset.
Andrea, so seldom at a loss for words, wavered. “We promised one another.”
For Sabine, promises were statements that often eclipsed the truth of feeling; sort of how telling a stranger about being a Rockette eclipsed the reality of disintegrating knees, of a body that would never quite know how to sit still. In her new room— her smallest room since college— Sabine acknowledged to herself that she was never going back. She refused to cling to memories. She tried not to remember the silent awe she felt when Andrea had a mouthful to say at a gallery opening, delivering her vast knowledge with an air of girlish precociousness.
Sabine was Midwestern. She was taught to frown upon broken promises. Yet she’d begun to wonder if it was ethical to keep vows made in more tactile times during more cloistered ones. Touch, words, and all the rest seemed to mean something entirely different now. It was as though someone had cut the definition of “cozy” from the dictionary and pasted it over the one for “freedom.” She stared at the books and houseplants that lined the perimeter of her new mattress. She had yet to buy furniture. She was not sure how it all would fit in the small room.
In the space, with the new moment’s language unfurling from her tongue, Sabine could see the year properly. She had already been struggling to see Andrea the way she once had. Maybe the face coverings had been to blame, the excessive precautionary measure that inevitably became the standard. Before heading outdoors, Andrea would faithfully pull two black nitrile gloves from a dwindling carton. They were originally purchased to use together, at Andrea’s suggestion. The last girl had appeared in their bed in February: Elena, an NYU undergraduate. Inquisitive. Challenging. Oral. Buxom. Because the universities were now closed, Sabine wondered whether the girls had left the city for some dead-end town in Missouri or North Dakota. Elena had been shy, but invested in the attention of the two women, as girls from similar stock often were. Sabine took great pride in knowing her own kind, and even greater pride in being her own kind’s greatest pleasure. She could give herself what she would have wanted at that age. Andrea’s long hair. Sabine’s long legs. Two lives, collectively spent in the city for 50 years. Two Pulitzer nominations. 2,800 shows, and over three million kicks. One hard-won Hell’s Kitchen apartment. In the old world, simply existing together had been its own clarion call to the city’s sweetest young distractions. It was never enough, but now it would never do.
Despite the mass demise of people and institutions, Sabine came to find the virus a blessing. She was no longer solely responsible for her slow tumble out of love.
“Did you know that, of the twelve songs on Lesley Gore’s debut record, seven are explicitly about crying?”
A song, one of little Lesley Gore’s new gumdrop ballads, played through the speaker above their heads. By the twentieth floor, Laura’s hand had found its way into Willy’s. Before the lift’s chrome doors could open onto the forty-second floor, Willy had broken the silence.
“Do you like her?” She asked, predicting the answer: a resounding yes.
“I do. She’s a cutie. She feels it all, you know? I understand why the girls are wild about her.”
“Right. Did you know that, of the twelve songs on Lesley Gore’s debut record, seven are explicitly about crying?”
Laura gave her that look she loved; it was almost adolescent; she looked at Willy as her mother who either baffled or embarrassed her. Generally both. “How do you know that?”
“My pal Thomas McIntyre in the arts section wrote the review.”
“Seven whole songs about crying. Jeez Louise. Where do I sign up?”
Willy hushed Laura and squeezed her hand. “None of that.” She stared into the perforated speaker on the elevator car’s oak ceiling, pushing back her own tears. “Hey. Want a parting work secret? I know you adore secrets.”
“Is it happy? I can’t take any more sadness today, Willy.”
“Plenty,” Willy replied. “It might just make you want to stick around. So. Arts reporting, as you know, is a blood sport. Everyone wants the first interview with the hot new thing. Sometimes, reporters do a bit of insider trading. A few months back, Annabel Kujala at The Brooklyn Record gave Thomas her exclusive with Elizabeth Taylor. He owed her something in return, and you bet your boots she came calling for his Lesley Gore interview. All’s fair in love and—” Willy paused, resenting the colloquialism. “Anyway, after she returned from the interview, she had to talk to someone about what she’d seen but could never print. So she rang up Thomas, and...” Willy winked knowingly.
“Yes. Granted, Annabel is primarily convinced because Lesley sits with her knees open, but it’s possible that we’ve now got Gore Vidal and Lesvos Gore. I could not be more delighted.”
Laura drew the curtains on the suite’s windows as Willy undressed them both. Down came Laura’s dress, up and over came Willy’s collared blouse.
“Don’t leave me,” she exhaled into Laura’s Sassoon cut. Her thick hair muted the plea. She would have an Afro by this time next year, Willy thought. Slowly but surely, Poughkeepsie would change her. She preferred to think about how Laura might forever alter Poughkeepsie.
The inaudible entreaty had broken Willy apart enough for the night. Once in bed, she pulled Laura’s head up from between her thighs and pinned her slim wrists to her sides. She slapped Laura’s hands away from her navel. They found common ground when Laura’s mouth found Willy’s breasts.
“Harder,” she begged into Laura’s hair. This time, Laura heard her. Teeth met the whole of a nipple. Willy heard Laura swallow. She whined like a starving feral kitten despite being the source of nourishment.
As she lifted her legs and parted them to her lover, Laura recalled her years on the Spelman pep squad in Atlanta. Willy, of course, could only see New York. “Do you remember the time we made love and then went to see the Radio City Rockettes?” she murmured into Laura’s mouth.
“Yes,” she moaned. “All I could think about was your smell.”
Sometimes, Laura would moan “Will.” Sometimes “Willy”—her lover’s guilty pleasure, Freud be damned. That evening, the emphasis was on the second syllable of her name: -hel.
“Hell,” Laura howled as Willy began thrusting, deeper and deeper still until her fingers, impossibly far inside, grazed the negative space within the negative space of her cervix. She would never know whether Laura was cursing their demise or crying her name.
“Are you still sick of being a woman?” she asked with a spiteful thrust.
Laura smacked her. She grabbed, bit down, and sucked on Willy’s breasts all the more.
Her writhing body made Willy imagine tunnels deep underground. She considered earthworms and fox dens and then she thought of iron and electrical currents. She thought of Pennsylvania Station. Bucking against Laura’s thigh, Willy finally wept.
By January, Radio City Music Hall was in debt. Its living fossils, still generously salaried, informed Sabine and the handful of Rockettes still in the city that, after 95 years, the program would be indefinitely postponed. There was talk of converting the theater into a commercial rental property until the Music Hall could recoup its losses. The American Stock Exchange, Disney, and Amazon had already come calling.
Sabine had not held her breath. As Rockettes, past and present, staged another picket line, she was content to lay flowers of condolence at the Music Hall’s now-bolted stage doors. In the Goodwill on West 72nd, she found a book by some guy named Willy E. Lombardi titled The Birth, Death, and Reincarnation of Pennsylvania Station. Somehow, it brought her comfort. She came to appreciate performances of grief that actually looked like grief, even if they seemed too exaggerated to truly be tragic. She wanted funerals or nothing. She nearly regretted the sentiment when she stood six feet away from Trudy Jensen’s casket in November.
Sabine was giving a masked seven-year-old a private lesson at Lincoln Center when the text appeared: i really need you to come get the rest of your stuff. She rolled her eyes and powered off her phone. The grubby-faced girl, a Sara—no, a Dora—or maybe something else laced together with crisp vowels—was too besotted with her new teacher—the Rockette—to fully grasp the plie exercise. Sabine humbly recalled having been in her pointe shoes decades before. Her instructor’s name had been Madame DuPont and she gave slaps on the wrist for the slightest infraction. She was rail-thin yet round-faced, with the hunched posture of a cyclist. Sabine had adored her. She would—if the city’s endless moods and phases willed it—become her.
During their second lesson, the Dora girl announced that she wanted to become a Rockette just like Sabine when she grew up. Her father, a metro news editor at The New York Times, had apparently succeeded in enlightening the masses everywhere to the Music Hall’s plight. Everywhere, save for in his own townhome.
Sabine and Andrea made one simple rule for Sabine’s retrieval of her last possessions from their old apartment: no speaking. It was Sabine who broke the bargain while assembling banker’s boxes on the living room floor as Andrea tossed objects her way: leotards, a Blender Bottle, chafe cream, a luxury hers-and-hers vibrator, a soiled “I Heart NY” t-shirt, the toy soldier hat and plume she’d never returned to wardrobe. A “we can fix this” spilled forth before she could stop it; as though there was just one puny leak instead of many. She wanted to be still with Andrea again. She felt more still just being there with her again. The placid no longer bothered her.
Finally, Sabine found herself where she’d always wanted to be, even though opportunity’s window had closed. Andrea held Sabine by her forehead as she tore the packing tape with her teeth. She pressed three wide strips around Sabine’s black facemask.
“I’m so mad that you did that,” Andrea growled. “Now I can’t kiss you.”
“You wouldn’t have been able to kiss me, anyway,” Sabine fought to say, becoming winded. She feigned a cough.
“Shut up,” Andrea said, sucking her earlobe. “I’d rather pretend this is all just your fault.”
Sabine only fought, only tore at her ex-girlfriend’s satin blouse, in order to be caught. She knew her wrists would be purpled by it all. That was fine. She would wear long sleeves uptown for work. It was only April.
Andrea unzipped her own skirt and dropped her hand inside. Brow furrowed, Sabine watched closely. She’d nearly forgotten how good Andrea looked when she let herself go, though her body remembered. Sabine knew precisely where her fingers buried, what they separated and what they pressed against. She knew where Andrea would become wet; she knew precisely how that sticky trail would spread onto her clothes and, eventually, the parquet floor. She loved that Andrea always looked like a boy when she held her clit, softly tugging until her legs trembled. She looked as though she was repressing the softest of grunts. Sabine also loved that she’d never shared this impression with Andrea. Her reasoning was simple: why burden the otherworldly with unsatisfactory language? What did she know, anyway?
Andrea peeled down Sabine’s leggings, panties, and ankle socks as though they were a unitard. Sabine whimpered in shame; the clothes were gummy from lessons and desire. She closed her eyes to the woman’s touch. Before Sabine could catch her breath, she was naked beneath a panting Andrea. Then, she was dressed again, but differently. Sabine looked down. She was wearing a piece from the 2017 Christmas Spectacular; a glittering, candy cane-striped leotard with gold lamé ruching around the hemline.
Spreading Sabine’s legs, Andrea asked Sabine to kick for her, one last time. She did.
The somber piles of what was once Pennsylvania Station sat heavy and untouched on Manhattan’s side streets for weeks. At the magazine, Willy wrote hasty articles on the city’s plans for this self-inflicted garbage. It would be hauled to Staten Island, maybe, or Long Island City. Through the winter, concrete and marble mingled with dog feces, human urine, and pre-strike newspapers until the pile—stationary enough to be a new monument— took on New York City’s most identifiable smells. Willy decided that she liked it.
While watching the reconstruction one day, the point of a ballpoint pen tucked into a hairline gap between her two front teeth, Willy observed the civilians who readily climbed into the ruins in the hopes of discovering some recognizable piece of the past. They were indigent, tourists, businessmen. Somehow, the universal yet acquired taste for Pennsylvania Station remained after her disintegration. Willy watched as a slender Black man in a bathrobe lifted a piece of Corinthian column onto his shoulder and carefully made his way down the mountain. Elsewhere, a white man with a Viennese accent inspected a mound of intact tiles with a magnifying glass.
The boom was abrupt as a mechanical crane unearthed one of the edifice’s eagle statues from the new monument of municipal waste. Humans and debris scattered as she rose. The chains were wrapped around her great throat like the illicit spoils of a Kenyan game excursion resistant to the tranquilizer dart. The eagle spun and spun and dust rained down. For a moment, Willy fantasized about riding the eagle’s neck as she ascended. She would cling to the linked steel chain as one would cling to a horse’s bridle. One hand reaching for the heavens, she would hoop and holler so! No pedestrian would ever realize what she was really experiencing while bucking against that miraculous, surviving beast.
Spring was coming. Willy could tell. The smell was growing pungent, like the Bradford pear trees lining City Hall’s courtyard. She wiped the sweat from her brow and reached for her pen, half-expecting the stoic bird to spread her wings, sever her chains, and fly away before Willy could look up from her notepad. Finally, the eagle reached her new perch: a flatbed trailer with out-of-town plates. The tractor trailer’s engine roared.
Laura, like Pennsylvania Station, was gone. But one day, there would be others. She set her pen to paper confidently.
Willy paused. She grinned. Hell. Maybe even Lesley Gore.
Dedicated to Lesley Sue Goldstein, 1946 - 2015.