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Ewa’s Story

Alanna wasn’t a natural storyteller. It took me a good ten minutes to realize the narrative was set in the present tense, that it was a problem tonight, whether she would return to the three-bedroom apartment in FiDi (as she called it) owned by her friend Victor. Or maybe it was managed by him; or maybe he knew the guy who managed it; or maybe he knew a guy who knew that guy; or maybe none of those things at all, it was never really made clear. This was all very like Victor, a 22-year-old of unclear origins who worked in cryptocurrency, no further detail.

The details of our parting were mundane. I attempted prolongation

Painting of two shot glasses on a table, with club-like lights around them. Red, blue, and green are the predominant colors used.
James Bartolacci, Two Shots. 2019, oil on Canvas. 40 × 30". Courtesy of the artist.

Alanna moved along the pavement as if it were a runway. This curious stride was the first thing I had noticed about her but now it struck me anew; I hadn’t previously connected it with another tic: her obsession with models, with the idea of models, not as an aspiration but as a way of demarcating the upper limit of her own formidable hotness. In just the two times we’d previously met I’d gotten used to the refrain, “No, but she’s like, actually hot—a model,” every glittering feature on her face ridiculing the implication. There were always models in the stories she told, models at the parties she attended. She even lived with a model, with two models, as well as the boyfriend of one of the models, a club promoter. Her walk—there was no denying it—was the walk of a model. Suddenly aware that I had been gazing at her legs, I jerked my head up, belatedly disguising the movement as a shiver and allowing whitish breath to shroud my face.

We had just finished smoking pot somewhere south of Bobst library, and now we were walking further south to get drinks. But there were no bars to be found in SoHo, which was still aside from the black cars now and then sliding by, and though the wind was cold and bitter we had difficulty settling on a destination or even a direction. The indecision in which our half-floated suggestions withered wasn’t so much the nervous tension of romance as a vague, suspicious sense that we hadn’t yet figured each other out, what we wanted from one another, and thus were holding some large part of ourselves in reserve until clearer terms were established. Of course, I assumed that she assumed that I wanted to fuck. But I didn’t, not really, or at least, I didn’t expect anything to happen. I hadn’t had sex in nearly a year. Alanna’s metronomic steps carried us along the pavement until, after crossing Houston several times, we tumbled into a dark and narrow establishment with anachronistic decor.

Once we began drinking, our conversation acquired a fierce, even competitive honesty, confessions of wrongs suffered and done. My sense of what we were doing together that night oscillated according to the geometry of our legs, their positioning on the rungs of our stools, themselves positioned neither too close together nor too far apart to be determinate. At one point a drunk approached with his phone and asked Alanna if she could help him get home. After he receded I went to the bathroom, where I studied my somewhat bloated face, my unkempt hair.

“It’s getting sort of late,” I said after returning to my seat. “Should we go somewhere?

“What?” Alanna said absently. She looked over at me, her twisting on the stool emphasizing her form, slow rises coming to dramatic emphases and legs recurved to remain on the stool’s rungs. Then, very seriously, she said: “Did you know I used to be ugly?”

When I didn’t believe her, she took out her phone, opened up a picture, and, after giving me a long stare, slid it down the bar. She proceeded to describe the particularities of her weight loss: scale, distribution, timing, proximate cause (nature or nurture?). Then she got up to use the bathroom, saying she should probably leave soon, and I was left searching for something to say, grasping dimly about for a means of prolongation. I settled on something half-remembered and dull, a retread of a “situation” with her roommates she hadn’t wanted to discuss earlier.

Maybe I had passed some test by not denying the teenager thus pictured was ugly, or maybe it was the six to eight drinks we’d had. But now she wanted to talk about the situation, and at length. Alanna wasn’t a natural storyteller. It took me a good ten minutes to realize the narrative was set in the present tense, that it was a problem tonight, whether she would return to the three-bedroom apartment in FiDi (as she called it) owned by her friend Victor. Or maybe it was managed by him; or maybe he knew the guy who managed it; or maybe he knew a guy who knew that guy; or maybe none of those things at all, it was never really made clear. This was all very like Victor, a 22-year-old of unclear origins who worked in cryptocurrency, no further detail. Most of Victor’s friends were models or former models, including the three current occupants of the apartment. The first roommate Alanna met was Shoshanna, an Israeli. Crystal and Ryan, the couple, were in Los Angeles, Shoshanna said, adding that normally she would be in Los Angeles too, at this time of year. She was trapped, that’s what she said, said Alanna, trapped here for a meeting with the creator of Orange Is the New Black about a project related to the IDF. (Superhot, that soldier thing she has going on, commented Alanna, nodding firmly.) The first week it was just the two of them as Alanna set up her windowless room, originally a walk-in closet. But really Shoshanna was almost never home. There was a guy in New Jersey she stayed with during the week, and weekends she only stopped by to pick things up in the early evening. And so it was a surprise when, coming home one night at 2 AM, Alanna entered to find her upturned on the lap of a young man with his teeth placed on her calf and his hands up her shirt. That was Ryan. He had come home for a few days for a party, before going back out to LA for a different party. Exhausting, he confidently drawled as he offered Alanna a rolled-up bill for the lines splayed on the glass table. The only sleep he’d had in months had been on a plane, he was kept busy on every coast; at this Shoshanna rolled her eyes and, having disentangled herself, pulled up her tank top. Yes, very hard on a marriage, she commented. When is your wife coming home? Crystal would be back in week or so; they had been married two months prior. We’re in it for life, said Ryan without apparent trace of irony. His ring was fitted with a piece of meteor—Crystal’s choice—and he wore a very expensive watch. He had hazel eyes and wide shoulders and no facial hair. He struck Alanna as strangely and indeed unbearably innocent. He didn’t even know he was a creep, said Alanna; it was like no one had ever told him he was one, even though I’m sure people tell him all the time. They made out while Shoshanna was in the bathroom. When she came out she knew but she didn’t say anything (so Alanna said to me), and soon after the three of them went out to a club, not returning to the apartment till around 7, when Alanna shrugged off an attempt at a threesome and went to bed. I should have done it, probably. Shouldn’t I? she asked me. I mean he’s alright, but she’s superhot, a model.

Two days later, Shoshanna left to move in with the guy in New Jersey, this time for good or at least for the month; the Orange Is the New Black project had been put on hold. (The “Palestine slash Israel thing.”) As she left, she stopped by Alanna’s room to wish her well. She looked me up and down, said Alanna, and then told me I had nice legs and that I should take care of myself. Her hair was wet for some reason, said Alanna abruptly, but I hadn’t heard the shower going.

The night before Ryan was to fly back to LA, they began drinking on the couch. Then he made his move. A hand on her leg, a hand on her arm, and, after soft rejection, the continued placement of hand on leg and arm. They did blow for about an hour under these circumstances—I might have done it, he’s hot, not exactly my type, but hot—until, quite suddenly, it became less a matter of hand and more one of torso. He hurled himself upon her, half-pleading, half-grinning, until Alanna threatened to scream loud enough for the neighbors to hear. The next day he texted an apology; and the day after that, an Instagram DM of him in bed with another woman.

Alanna interrupted her story to swipe frantically at her phone.

“I realized,” she said, “I realized he might delete it—you can do that now—so I saved them . . . fuck, here it is.” She held up the screen in triumph and took a deep swallow, which I echoed despite a burgeoning sense that I was too drunk.

Daylight, it seemed, lit the image softly, like it was very early morning. The strange thing about man and woman was that they might almost have been related. They had the same eyebrows, the same cheekbones. The man—Ryan, I presumed—had a fringe of straight blonde hair in the frame and bore a very serious look as he posed ludicrously for a selfie of sexual conquest. Still asleep on his shoulder was the young woman. There was something disturbing to her unconscious expression, a trouble that knit her brow almost to the point of enragement. And a thought occurred to me, as I gazed at the young woman’s face.

“How old are they? Ryan and Crystal, I mean.”

“Umm,” Alanna stalled as she typed out a text and then adopted a thoughtful expression. “I think she’s 19? He’s 20. This isn’t Crystal, though.”

“Right, I got that.”

Alanna’s plan, it seemed, was to use the photograph as leverage to get Ryan out of the apartment. How this was to be accomplished she hadn’t yet decided, and, as she elaborated at length on the different possibilities, from printing the photo out and leaving it on Ryan and Crystal’s bed to another strategy that, for some reason, involved fucking Crystal, I got the sense she had been turning over these schemes with pleasure even as the situation escalated by the day. Crystal had asked her what was going on, had she heard anything about Ryan cheating, she knew that Alanna knew something; for his part Ryan had come to the door of her room to promise vengeance and had, yesterday, severed her laptop charger, she said. His actions were relayed with surprising calm, their tawdry detail catalogued for my amusement even as I grew increasingly confused. Why had Ryan threatened her when she hadn’t done anything yet? How did Crystal know that Alanna “knew something”? A thick blue confusion swirled through her story, replete with names of people I didn’t know and parties I didn’t see why she would be at. Just as she worked herself up to the brink of sending Crystal the photo, asking me to ask her to do it, she became distracted by her texting of Victor (as I could see on her screen) in quick long bursts. It was clear, from his repeated questions, that he either didn’t believe her or just didn’t want to be involved. Alanna grew emotional: I trusted you to find me an apartment and if I can’t feel safe there, that’s just not OK, you know? Several times Victor replied that he did know, it wasn’t OK, they’d figure it out, could she just give him some time to sort things through?

I examined her in profile. So many of my problems could be fixed by her, I abruptly and absurdly thought as I made eye contact with the bartender, with whom we were by now alone. A momentary howling from the wind outside, the glass in the window appearing to shiver in fear, caused us to exchange a mutual grimace. She made her way forward, adjusting the oversized flannel shirt that emphasized her chest by the way it hung. She leaned far over the counter as she pushed forward a round of free drinks and asked where we lived. Finally, after a third round of shots, she propped her chin on her hands and pressed up close as if to disclose a secret.

“So where are you guys going next? Any plans?”

There was a pause that was a beat too long, and then both of us replied at once.

“Mmm, I’m not sure?”

“We’re going home,” I said flatly.

Both women appeared just as surprised as me by the firmness of my answer.

“Home?” echoed the bartender, looking between us, trying to figure something out.

“Home,” said Alanna.

The details of our parting were mundane. I attempted prolongation, of course. We didn’t go home together, of course. And as I walked into the night I noticed my steps lengthening, in semiconscious imitation of her stride. I wanted Alanna. But I didn’t want to be like all the other people who wanted Alanna. I didn’t want to be Ryan, I didn’t want to be the drunk or the bartender. I didn’t want to be me. Did I then want to be Alanna? Gradually, very gradually, the face of the young woman from the DM, with her restless, uneasy dreams, came before me as I glared at the cold sidewalk. I didn’t want to be her, either, except in one crucial respect: that she would always be a moment away from having to wake, and see where the night had brought her.

Months passed before I saw Alanna again. By then, she had long since forced Ryan and Crystal out of the apartment, out of New York City altogether. They moved to LA still a couple, at least so I gathered. Though Alanna and I texted, and had even made plans to return to that bar, one or the other of us always cancelled with little advance notice. It was early spring, and the warm bluffs of air that drifted across the city seemed to promise that change was coming not just for the season but for me as well. That night Jordan, who had introduced us, invited me to come to a party with the two of them. Naturally, there were going to be models there.

Victor’s apartment sat near the top of a new development along the 7 train’s recent westward expansion, a fifteen-story rectangle of ultramarine-tinted glass with an exposed metal skeleton supporting an irregular profusion of sunrooms, porches, terraces. His apartment was particularly well equipped in this last element, the wrap-around terrace jutting at least thirty feet out, scattered by deck chairs, an outdoor bar, tiki torches, as well as by fifty or maybe it was sixty tall young women, clustered in groups or gliding in and out of the apartment with cups in their hands and jackets draped over their shoulders. Victor himself was muscular but also graceful, with the amiable disposition of a particularly active sleepwalker. It seemed like he was on a lot of coke. Quickly he insisted on giving me a drink and just as quickly I lost all sense of chronology as I trailed Alanna around the party. Next I can place my environs is 4 AM, when Jordan, Alanna, and I were clustered around a low glass table, snorting lines off a pristine art book. We soon shifted over to accommodate a model with a broken foot, who had a heavy accent and wasn’t drinking. Her back was to the wall and her foot with its black Velcro boot was placed carefully atop a stack of pillows; her other leg was drawn close, fingers interlaced over the knee and occasionally pulling it back in a little stretch. We found out she’d come to the US about a year ago and that she was 20 years old. She was blonde, not that tall. She had large dark bags under her eyes. I wasn’t really sure why she was hanging out with us, where her friends were; no one else was left at the party, and the sweep of night visible through the glassed exterior was beginning to tinge blue. I stopped talking, mostly. My head was listing towards senescence, and my only ambition was to remain close to Alanna. The model said something about how Victor had let her stay here when a boyfriend threw her out. Alanna began to talk about her apartment. I stirred, wet a finger, collected on it a film of the coarse, dental-product-flavored powder, and rubbed the residue across my gums, and as I gathered myself I noticed a change that had occurred. Before, I had gotten the sense the model was an insomniac passing idly the hours. But now she watched Alanna carefully, suspiciously; and Alanna seemed aware of this attention, a frozen little smile twisting at her lips. The model didn’t speak until the room fell silent aside from the refrigerator’s hum.

“He tried it with me, too,” she said finally. “Ryan.”

“Yeah?” Alanna was cutting lines again, not looking up.

“Yes, I tell—told—him, ‘no, Crystal and I are friends, what are you doing?’ I said.”

“Yeah.”

“We were at this big party—flown in for, how do you say it?—we were at this party we flew to on an airplane, and then, we all go upstairs for . . .” She gestured at the coke dismissively with her free hand and cast a quick glance at me. “He and I go into a bedroom in the hotel, and he starts coming to me. And I told him, ‘No, we’re friends, think about Crystal,’ and it’s sad because he was really my friend.”

“Yeah,” said Alanna. “Crystal is amazing.”

“Yes, she is a very sweet girl. And so I pushed him away and go back to the party, but I don’t know whether I should tell Crystal . . .” The model shook her head. She once more crossed her arms over her knee and pulled it back in a stretch. Then, as if to signal she was done talking, she craned her neck down the hallway through which her friends had exited hours earlier, like they had just left a minute ago and would at any moment return to take her home.

“God. This Ryan guy sounds fucking terrible,” Jordan put into the silence, before drawing the book to him and doing a line. He shook his head, snorted, and rubbed at his face. “Some men are just creeps,” he said with decision. Nobody responded. Alanna, now in a sitting position, still had a slightly embarrassed, slightly uncomfortable expression to her face.

Outside the three of us were met by the grind of construction beginning its diurnal tumult. One half of the sky remained a vast dark vault, but, in the patches of horizon visible between buildings, yellows and blues and pinks striated as an emergent dawn. A truck pulled by in the pale bluish light, causing us to jump and laugh crazily, like sleepwalkers who’d awoken to find themselves together, all of them drenched in water for no apparent reason. We passed a row of police cars set in diagonals. We entered a diner. As the food arrived my stomach began to shift, wandering pressure differentials accompanied by moments of sharp sudden pressure. I went to the bathroom and, when I slid back into the booth, the two of them were talking about the model.

“I don’t think she was the one in the ad,” said Jordan over his nearly empty plate. “If she was that successful, she probably wouldn’t be going back to Poland, right?”

“I just think it’s funny she lied about the photo. I mean, I get it. But still.” Alanna shrugged. “What should we do next? I think there’s still some left in the other vial.”

“What do you mean?” I cut in.

They turned towards me in confusion.

“About the vial?”

“Sorry . . . I meant . . . who was in what ad? The model we were just talking with?”

“Didn’t you recognize her?”

I shook my head no.

“From the DM. The one Ryan sent me of the girl.”

But that can’t be her,” I said. “Remember, the picture was from, like, the morning, and she was sleeping on his chest. The Polish girl said she told him no and left.”

Alanna, in the process of spearing food with her fork, paused just long enough to look at me in surprise; and when she saw that I was being sincere she raised her eyebrows, shook her head, gave a little shrug, placed a lank piece of egg-coated bread between her lips, and began to chew with a slow, thoughtful expression. The row of window shades behind her head, white plastic and drawn shut, had begun to glow violently golden. A man came out from behind the counter to raise them one by one, using a long gripping device to reach the latches. He leaned far over our table. His large stomach threatened my still-full plate. And by the time we left the diner the sun had risen fully, risen fully on a day colder than night.

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