Flirting in Cars
By Alisa Kwitney
Washington Square Press Copyright © 2007 Alisa Kwitney
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780743268974
Zoë woke up feeling chilled and groggy, like a bear roused too early from hibernation. She blinked myopically at the light filtering in through the shades, trying to figure out why she was suddenly conscious. Over the background hum of the air conditioner, she became aware of another noise, the clanking, hydraulic wheeze of a garbage truck from ten flights below. Rolling over, she fumbled for her glasses on the bedside table and peered at the clock. Seven fifty-five.
Zoë shuddered and turned off the air conditioner. This wasn't fair. It was Saturday and Maya had spent the night at a preteen slumber party, which meant that Zoë could sleep in as late as she wanted. And since the real estate agent had said he wanted to hold an open house on Sunday, this was probably her last moment of peace before everything imploded. Flopping back onto her stomach, Zoë closed her eyes, trying to imagine herself lying in a still, green valley.
The garbage truck made a series of piercing beeps, which sounded twice as loud without the air conditioner rumbling in the background. Try to ignore it.
Last night Zoë had been up till three AM finishing an article on the evolving relationship between the United States and the European Union. In every love affair, she'd written, there comes a point where the balance of power shifts, and the more dominant partnerhas to cede some control or risk a separation.
This had certainly been true for Zoë, whose last love affair had ended ten months earlier. Glad to have found an attractive man who could make intelligent dinner conversation, she'd put up with Jeremy's plaid shirts, his history professor beard, and his nocturnal blanket hogging. And then, on Halloween, Jeremy had told Zoë that he disapproved of Maya's Disney Cinderella costume, as it branded her as belonging to a vast, patriarchal conglomerate. In that moment, Zoë had realized that life was too short to spend with someone who not only lacked a sense of humor, but also a sense of the absurd. The first was regrettable, the second, unacceptable.
The only thing she missed now was the sex, which had been surprisingly good. No telling when good sex might reenter the picture, either, since Zoë was now intent on holding out for a man who understood the distinction between being politically savvy and being politically correct.
Don't think about that now. Sleep.
Down on Riverside Drive, the garbage truck made a noise halfway between a crunch and a crash, and then there was silence. Zoë groaned, trying to will herself back to drowsiness. No use. Behind her closed lids, the list of everything that remained to be done unscrolled itself. Clean the apartment, contact the bank, hire movers. You're supposed to leave some furniture in place so as not to look desperate, but what if she didn't find a buyer before the end of the month? Rubbing her eyes, Zoë gave a low, humorless laugh. Christ, it was ironic, worrying about not selling her home fast enough, when the thought of losing it still made her feel like rending her garments and throwing ashes on her head. She'd been so touched when she'd inherited this place ten years earlier from Mrs. Erenfeldt, an elderly widow who had rented her a room and then wound up becoming a kind of surrogate mother. Zoë was still amazed that the co-op board had agreed to let her keep the apartment, given her unreliable freelance income and lack of assets. Possibly the fact that she'd been six months pregnant and overcome with grief at the time of her interview had affected their decision.
Oh, God, maybe there was still some way to avoid giving up the place completely. Except that the current co-op board was intent on cracking down on subletters, large dogs, and therapists who worked from home.
Zoë dragged her fingers through her hair. I need to get up, she thought.
No, what she needed now was sleep. Zoë curled onto her left side and her stomach gave an empty gurgle. Or maybe she needed a cup of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, and then sleep.
Zoë imagined someone bringing her the coffee; a man, telling her he thought she needed this. She could picture him sitting down next to her on the bed, the mattress dipping under his weight. Stroking the tangled hair away from her forehead with one big hand. Pulling the covers over her head, Zoë had the fantasy man place the coffee up on the side table and join her in the bed.
Just as she was about to get kissed, the doorbell rang.
Zoë opened her front door and automatically said, "Houdini isn't here." But the woman standing on her straw doormat wasn't Nora from 9C, searching for her escaped Siamese. This woman was slender and blond and elegant in her complicated blouse and boutique jeans, the perfect outfit for an autumn day that still felt like summer. She had accessorized with a sleek red sports stroller and a cherubically bald baby, who was wearing a miniature version of the mother's outfit. Zoë didn't recognize either of them at first glance, but since she met so many people, she wasn't sure if she was supposed to know who they were. She decided to play it safe. "Hello?"
"I'm here for the open house."
Zoë felt a stab of panic. Was there supposed to be an open house here this morning? No, the agent had definitely said Sunday. Today was her day to get things ready. "I'm sorry, but I think you have the wrong apartment."
The blond woman appeared unconvinced. "But this is sixteen D?"
"It is, but there's no open house today."
"Oh, crap. Did I get the date wrong?"
"I'm afraid so." Zoë kept standing behind her front door, acutely conscious of the fact that all she was wearing was an oversized Kiss My Bush T-shirt that barely reached the top of her thighs.
"This is so irritating." The blond woman flicked open her cell phone. "Hello, Ayelet? It's Susan. I'm standing here at Three Hundred Riverside Drive, and it seems that there is no open house today." Desperate for a cup of coffee, Zoë contemplated closing the door and walking away. The baby looked up at Zoë as if it knew what she was thinking.
"You're shitting me!" Susan caught Zoë's gaze and held up a finger, signaling that she needed another minute. The imperturbable infant continued to gaze at Zoë with what appeared to be rapt fascination. Well, fine, Zoë decided, no point in alienating a potential buyer. And even with financial assistance, paying tuition for the Mackinley School meant that money was going to be extremely tight. Her six-article contract with Vanity Fair might earn her some respect at Sebastian Junger's bar, but she still had to shop for the supermarket's daily specials.
"All right, fine, Ayelet, we'll talk later." Snapping her cell phone shut, Susan turned back to Zoë. "Listen, is there any way I can take a quick look around? I'm leaving for Paris tomorrow."
"Then why don't you make an appointment to see it when you get back?"
"You'll probably have sold it by then." Susan sounded forlorn.
Zoë sighed and thought about it for a moment. Was she really up to watching a stranger take a tour of her home? After all, she'd lived here for over a decade. This was the first place she hadn't shared with a roommate. All her memories of Maya as a newborn were bound up with these rooms, this light, this view. "I'm sure you'll find something else that suits you," she said, making up her mind.
"But I can already tell how much I'm going to love your place. Can't I take a quick peek? That's really all I need to decide whether or not I like something. I swear, I won't even take Maya out of her stroller."
Zoë glanced at the infant, who was chewing on her sleeve. "Oh, how funny. That's my daughter's name." Of course, Zoë thought, it wasn't really funny. It was deflating. Eight years earlier, the name "Maya" had sounded unusual to her ear, yet not unwieldy or pretentious. She'd liked the fact that it was easy to pronounce in at least ten different languages. Now it had become another ubiquitous urban fad, like Victorian mourning jewelry or thick, black, nerd-chic spectacles. Both of which Zoë happened to wear.
Oblivious to Zoë's reaction, Susan smiled as if she'd scored a point. "See? It's fate. You have to let us see your place."
Despite herself, Zoë found herself relenting. Chutzpah, she felt, was underrated as a virtue. Maya's school was forever stressing the importance of character traits such as empathy and diligence and industriousness, but she always warned her daughter that without a little boldness and misplaced confidence, these other qualities pretty much ensured a lifetime of grunt work.
"All right," she conceded. "A quick look."
"You're a doll," Susan said, steering her stroller through the foyer and into the living room, which still had Le Monde spread over the coffee table, along with a copy of the Guardian that the cat had begun to shred. Zoë resisted the urge to apologize for the untidiness.
"Oh, hey, that's interesting." Susan paused by the sectional sixties-style couch, looking up at Zoë's framed Shag print of Polyphemus and Grace.
Zoë walked over to the picture, which depicted a weeping Cyclops in a cave, looking yearningly at the mod brunette perched on his lap. "Isn't it funny? I picked it up in this quirky little art gallery in Melbourne. They call it hipster pop surrealism."
"Uh-huh. Actually, I was wondering whether this wall was structural, or if you could break through it to make an archway."
"Sorry, but I don't have the architectural blueprints handy."
"Oh, that's all right." Susan pointed to a thin crack in the ceiling. "Was there a leak there?"
"Nope, there were a lot of days like this." Zoë ran a hand through her wildly frizzing hair, always an accurate barometer of the humidity. "Listen, I'm going to get some clothes on while you take a quick look at the kitchen." She pitched it halfway between a statement and a suggestion, which turned out to be a little too subtle for her uninvited guest. Before Zoë had done up her brassiere, there was a knock on her bedroom door. "Is it okay if we take a look back here?"
"Let me just get my jeans on," Zoë said, wrestling with the zipper.
"Don't feel you have to get dressed on my account!"
"Gee, thanks," Zoë answered, tempted to open the door in her underwear. But the truth was, she felt exposed enough just inviting this upscale yummy mummy into her bedroom. Besides, when you were five-foot-eleven and built like one of Robert Crumb's zaftig hippie cartoons, the line between casual and slatternly was a fine one.
"Did you say come in?"
"No, but don't let that stop you." When she turned around, the woman was already wheeling her stroller into the room.
"Oh, gosh, what a great space. The last apartment we saw didn't even have a master bedroom. But I won't look outside of this neighborhood." The baby made a sound, and Susan rummaged around in her Prada diaper bag. "Here, Maya, chew on this. You know, my husband wanted to live on the East Side, but I said, no, the East Side is too chilly and tense and fashion-conscious."
Privately, Zoë thought that sounded like a good fit. Out loud, she said, "I've always loved the Upper West Side," then used the old reporter's trick of cutting herself off to signal that an interview was at an end. "Listen, I hate to rush you, but I have an appointment in about half an hour."
"Of course, I'll just peer out your window for one sec and then I'll go." Susan wheeled the stroller through Zoë's bedroom and pulled up the shade. "Wow, what an incredible view of the park." Susan looked back over her shoulder. "What's it like when the trees start changing color?"
"It's lovely," said Zoë, wondering how to speed things up. "Listen, the time..."
"Of course." Susan lowered the shade back down. "You do have such great light in here."
Zoë mumbled something in agreement. The truth was, she almost never remembered to look out her window. This was the place where she worked late and then fell asleep in exhaustion. Light was basically the enemy.
"And you're so close to the Museum of Natural History..." Susan paused, then turned from the window as if suddenly making up her mind about something. "Mind if I ask what's making you want to leave?"
Zoë paused, a little startled by the other woman's directness. She wasn't used to people asking her so many questions; usually, she was the one digging for information. "We're moving because of my daughter's school."
Susan frowned. "They have bad public schools in this district?"
"Actually, there are a couple of good ones."
"And does your daughter attend one?"
"No, until recently she's been going to West Side International."
Susan raised her perfectly arched eyebrows at the mention of the private school's name. "Oh, I've heard they have a good reputation. Did you have a bad experience there?"
Zoë hesitated, choosing her words with care. The truth was, West Side International was a fine school, particularly if you wanted your first-grader exposed to Russian and Chinese as well as Spanish, and felt that the accomplishments of the early Islamic era were not sufficiently stressed in the standard elementary curricula. It was the kind of school that attracted artistic and academic families, and for the four years Maya had been a student, Zoë had felt part of a warm, nurturing community of teachers and parents. Best of all, the school had a sliding scale of tuition, and made allowances for single parents with fluctuating incomes.
Which made it all the harder to accept how badly the school had failed her daughter.
"I don't mean to make you uncomfortable," said Susan, "but we've heard that if you don't start doing your research now, you can find your child stuck in a school that doesn't really address their needs."
Tell me about it, thought Zoë. "It's not that West Side International was a bad school. In fact Maya loved it there, but we felt she needed a different academic environment for the fourth grade."
Susan lifted her head, instantly alert. "Different how? More challenging? Less permissive? Are you moving to relocate to a different public school district?"
I should have gone with my first impulse and shut the door in her face, thought Zoë. Then an unpleasant thought occurred: Did she make people feel like this when she was interviewing them? Of course, she was far less confrontational in her approach, but still, she did ask intrusive questions. It was her job.
"Actually," Zoë said, "we're moving out of the city." As if in response, a car from ten flights below gave a loud honk of its horn.
"Westchester? I have a girlfriend who just moved to Pound Ridge."
"A bit farther than that. My daughter's just been accepted to a wonderful school in Dutchess County."
"Ah." Susan looked blank. "Where is that?"
"Two hours from the city."
"What's the name of the town?"
"I've never heard of it. So, let me get this straight. You're moving out of Manhattan just to send your daughter to school in a small town?"
Zoë sighed. Clearly the woman was concerned that there might be some new educational trend she should know about. "There's one school in particular," she said. "It's one of the best places in the country for students with dyslexia. And since I didn't realize that Maya required specialized teaching until the academic year had already started, it was the only place that had room for her right away."
"Oh," Susan said, visibly discomfited. "I see. Well, it sounds like you're doing the right thing. Personally, I could never leave the city. I'd just go insane out in the boondocks."
Zoë, who feared that very outcome, tried to look unfazed. "Well, in our case, it's just for a year, so that Maya can get caught up." The head of admissions had said a year at Mackinley would make a huge difference in Maya's reading and writing, and had shown Zoë the marked improvements that other students had made in just a few months. Of course, there were no guarantees, but Zoë figured that Maya's dyslexia was mild enough that all she needed was a little extra assistance to get her back on track.
Susan looked puzzled. "I don't want to shoot myself in the foot here, but why are you selling your apartment if you're only making a short-term move?"
Zoë felt herself flush. "Our co-op board is extremely strict about subletting." She left out the fact that the current president of the board was a high-powered lawyer who was slowly replacing all the old, middle-income tenants with other rich lawyers and Wall Street types.
It didn't matter, really. Some people said the real estate market was peaking, and that it was better to sell now and buy later.
"So, let me get this straight," Susan began, when something seemed to catch her eye. "Hey, um, what's all that smoke out there?"
Zoë looked out the window in the direction Susan was pointing. "Oh, that's the chimney of the apartment building next to us."
"Does it do that a lot?"
"Only when they're running the incinerator. As long as the smoke's white, it's okay, but when it burns black we call the local fire station and they send someone over to yell at the other building's super."
Susan looked appalled. "How long has this been going on?"
Zoë shrugged. "As long as I've lived here."
"It shouldn't be. You should complain to the Environmental Protection Agency. I mean, that stuff probably contains all kinds of toxins."
"That's the downside to living in the city, I guess."
"I'd just worry about an infant breathing that in all day. You know, at this stage, babies are very sensitive to chemicals." At that moment, the baby began to fuss, kicking her soft legs and squirming against her restraints. "Hush, honey, we're going to go right now."
The baby's face contorted, and she began to cry.
"Listen," Zoë said, "if you have any more questions..."
"Oh, no, I've taken up enough of your time." There was a definite chill in her voice.
Zoë followed them out of her bedroom. She felt like saying "That smoke was not the cause of my daughter's dyslexia," but she restrained herself. After all, she'd been in this woman's shoes once. When you had an infant, the weight of all that new responsibility gave you the mistaken impression that every single choice you made had a profound impact. So you fretted over the mobile you hung over the crib, the television shows you did or didn't turn on, the bedtime stories you read aloud each night, the organic foods you prepared. You deluded yourself that if you did everything correctly, made the best choices, timed it so you hit each developmental phase just right, then your baby would rise to her fullest potential.
At this stage of the game, nobody wanted to accept that so much of your child's destiny remained beyond your control.
The other woman's Maya was red-faced and screaming now, jerking her knees up to her belly. Zoë opened the front door for them. "You might just try taking her out of there," she said.
"Thank you, I think I know how to handle my child."
Just throw up your hands and back away, Zoë instructed herself as she went into the kitchen to help herself to some long overdue coffee. Claudius, her massive Maine coon cat, was curled up around the warm pot.
"Come on, fatso, move it over." Claudius blinked his green eyes at her, his pupils narrowing to vertical slits in the sunlight. Zoë scratched him under his chin and then counted out scoops of ground roast, trying to ignore the baby's hiccuping sobs. God, these walls were thin. Through the back door, Zoë could hear the woman yelling at someone, presumably on her cell phone. "No, absolutely not. I looked out the window and saw a chimney belching smoke."
Zoë took the milk out of the refrigerator, wishing that both the elevator and the coffee machine would hurry up. Even though she already had a pretty good idea of what Susan thought of her apartment, she had no desire to hear it spelled out.
"Yes, there was good light and a lot of space, but the place is basically a wreck. It would need at least six months' work to be even close to livable."
Why was the woman speaking so loudly? Did she want Zoë to hear what she was saying? A sudden, unpleasant thought occurred: Was she as audible to people in the hall as they were to her?
In the back of her mind, she'd always been dimly aware of the acoustics of her place, but still, there were times she'd forgotten to be quiet. Like the other week, when she'd had a screaming match over the phone with her mother. And that weekend last spring, when she and Jeremy had found themselves alone in the house and had gone a little wild with the chocolate syrup. How was it that she'd never let herself realize how exposed she was?
Outside in the hall, Susan had not finished complaining. "And I'm also sure there was some kind of a leak in the -- oh, crud. I forgot Maya's diaper bag in there."
Zoë went back to her bedroom, retrieved the bag, and handed it out the door just as Susan rang her bell.
"Oh! Aren't you a mind reader," Susan said, overdoing the charm a bit. "I was just going to ask you for that."
Zoë smiled thinly as she shut the door. These were the mental accommodations you make in order to live in the city, she thought. A little selective deafness in the kitchen, a touch of polite amnesia in the elevator, the pretense that the people living next to you and above you and beneath you aren't privy to your secrets. Without at least the illusion of privacy, how could hundreds of strangers coexist stacked one on top of the other?
That was one of the side effects of leaving a place: you got to see it from a different perspective.
Copyright © 2007 by Alisa Kwitney
Excerpted from Flirting in Cars by Alisa Kwitney Copyright © 2007 by Alisa Kwitney. Excerpted by permission.
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