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(Not) A Story About New York photo

It’s August in Manhattan when we both decide to leave. You accept a job in LA and my boyfriend packs my life in a U-Haul and drives it to our new apartment together in Pittsburgh. 

 

When I toss this story around in my head, I want it to be a story about New York. A story about how we both loved the city but knew we had to leave. A story about the end of summer when fruit starts to rot on the vine, turns sour.

 

***

 

Two years earlier, I call a boat rental shop in Jensen Beach, Florida. It’s my first day on the phones at my shiny sales job. My pitch script is on my desk in front of me: crisp white double-sided paper with a staple in the top left at a precise forty-five degree angle. At my last job, I stapled a lot of paper and fixed a lot of staplers. I felt ready to leave, genuinely excited by this new opportunity. It’s not until the owner of this boat rental shop picks up the phone with a rushed HelllOOO? that I realize I never understood what I’d actually be doing here.

 

My headset is tethered to my desk and I feel a dog on a leash. Next to me is a man in a blue suit with slick black hair who tells us later that he is a rapper, and he once opened for Estelle, yeah, you know, the one who sings American Boy?  On my left is an empty desk, a guy named Ben who never showed up on our first day. 

 

***

 

Monday, our first day, we are corralled into an expansive kitchen with trendy but uncomfortable furniture. Blue upholstered banquettes race under a wall of windows and plastic Scandinavian chairs wait for bodies. There’s a college-orientation energy in the room. I sit next to Alyssa, as dictated to me by her sticky name tag on the lapel of her blazer. She has long hair and long nails, crossed arms and crossed legs. We smile at each other and say hi, and then say nothing. 

 

We spend the entire day playing ice breakers. There’s almost sixty of us. I’m salaried with a cushy benefits package and my first assignment is to come up with two truths and a lie.

 

***

 

You started working here a few years before I did. One day, you tell me, there was this money machine. You described a glass chamber the size of a phone booth. When it’s turned on, air blasts through and lifts the green paper bills into a swirling dance. You have ten seconds to catch as many as you can. When I picture it in my head, I can only visualize the scene as a cartoon. Flat colors, your arms multiplying and reaching in every direction, your hair comically vertical. 

 

The story harks back to a time at the company that has since expired. When there was a culture of wealth that diffused the pressure of the job. When work was mostly hanging out with your friends. When everything felt less like more of the same. 

 

Part of me wants to believe everything you tell me at face value. The other part of me is convinced the company has always been this way and it’s you that has changed. 

 

***

 

The language of sales is a language of abbreviations. FDOM, FWOM, LWOM, LDOM. BME. NDMs, DMs, DMMR, Opps, Ps, HTCs, Ts, max comp and multi-locs.  LVM, CB, RO dnlvm. TT ndm, DM will CB. Tt dm HU. PUHU. 

 

***

 

The first time we meet is when you join our sales team. Our manager Kevin loves when we stand in a lopsided semi-circle and each answer a rudimentary prompt. Okay, everyone go around and say your name and a fun fact about yourself. I don’t remember what I said but I am sure it was unremarkable. You say your name is James and your fun fact is that you love to watch Victorian period dramas. This, too, is unremarkable except for its contrast with your frat boy appearance. 

 

Alyssa freaks when I tell her you’re on my new team. Kelsey, she pleads in her Jersey accent, her voice lowered, he’s so fucking hot. 

 

***

 

I ask a landscaper in a sleepy Chicago suburb what advertising he is doing for his business now. If he tells me it’s all word of mouth, I’ll know he’s lying. It’s the beginning of February, the ground he works has yet to thaw and he's just waiting for his phone to ring. That’s why he answered my call. If someone in your area is looking for a landscaper, wouldn’t you want them to know about you? 

 

***

 

It was gradual at first, my obsession with you. To fawn over you was to fit in with the other girls on our team. They’d catch up with me as I walk to the bathroom. James looks so good today I can’t even look at him. They hang back with me, dragging our feet as we leave a meeting. Isn’t he gorgeous? They have boyfriends, too. It feels mature that we can share a crush on this guy from work. 

 

What we don’t say: we think you have a crush on each of us. Nothing is unnoticed in this unspoken competition. Who do you sit next to in our morning roundup? Whose desk do you hover over when you don’t want to make a call? Who do you stand behind during a meeting on the sales floor? 

 

***

 

If a sales call is a battle, we are soldiers. Our managers arm us with statistics. A fact sheet published on our company blog highlights the demographics of our website’s users: people with expendable income who are ready to spend money with a local business now. A leading research agency published a study in 2016 that we still cite years later. 96% of our users make a purchase with a business they found on our site within a week. I show business owners these webpages every day for years, and not one asks me a single question. They just accept the information at face value, and they do what I say. 

 

***

 

At some point we suspect that the music playing in our office would play the same songs at the same time everyday. This upsets me. I feel our universe is dystopian, like Orwell or Delillo. Lab rats living the same day over and over into perpetuity. I think you feel the same way but maybe I just want to think that. We never talk about how it makes us feel, the soundtrack on a loop.

 

Still, everyday when P!nk’s ‘What About Us?’ inevitably blares through the above speakers, you come to my desk and write the date and time. We compare with what you scribbled the day before, and the day before that. I pretend not to notice the other girls look over to us. Soon, they stop confiding in me about our crush on you. 

 

***

 

Our office is on two floors in a building that was never fully realized. The original design was planned to be 100 stories, the tallest in the world at the time. Construction began in 1929, just before the Great Depression. From the ground, the building is impressive. Coffered palatial ceilings in a marble-floored lobby. From across the street, it looks unfinished. 

 

***

 

We are the top performing sales team in the New York office.  You invite us all over to your apartment after our Target Party. The rest of us pick up cases of beer and a magnum of cheap rosé. Ten of us pack in the tiny elevator of your building on the Lower East Side. The elevator lurches under our weight and we spill out onto your roof. Music plays, I don’t know from where, and we gather around mismatched patio furniture. In my memory, it’s like a scene from a movie.

 

It’s one of those first days in early spring. The sun is gentle yet warm. I drink PBR. “I Like It” by Cardi B plays at least four times. We pee in pairs, and I walk into your open apartment with my friend. We’re the only ones there. I’m drunk and I’m thrilled. 

 

We beeline to your bedroom and rifle through your belongings. My friend finds a signed glossy photo of Harry Styles on top of your dresser, hidden under a messy pile of receipts, mail, other paper nothings. We giggle uncontrollably. I’m dying to ask you why Harry Styles is in your bedroom but I don’t want you to know I was there, too. 

 

On our way back up to the rooftop, I pause at your kitchen table. Each section of the New York Times is open and folded neatly in a mosaic across the surface. I think of the haphazard stack on my table in my apartment. For a split second, I wonder if you arranged this display before we arrived just for me, to prove our likeness in some small way. 

 

Each day, it’s my desk with a newspaper insert with ink-smudged edges, the review, business, styles or book review, leftover from my subway commute. Nobody in our office reads the newspaper. I want to believe you’ve noticed me. I want to believe you wanted me to notice you, too. 

 

***

 

The following morning, I text my boyfriend, A. 

 

K - I have a total crush on my teammate

But def weird having a crush! I’m not used to it

A - I suppose crushes are good? Haha idk

K - Yeah I think so! 

It feels vvvvv foreign

Have you had a crush?

A - Eh maybe? Idk

Honestly nah

 

***

 

Our team clusters together to have our photo taken for the All Hands presentation. Kevin texts it to all of us and I save a copy to my phone. I draw a heart around the two of us. My eyes are closed, head thrown back in a fit of laughter. You look at me seemingly with love, our little joke that I don’t remember anymore.

 

***

 

I send you a haiku over Instagram message for your birthday. It’s lame and desperate, my fingers clicking letters and counting syllables. We only communicate when we are at work and I feel like I’m stretching the boundaries of our relationship. 

 

Happy birthday James / Twenty six isn’t so bad / now is it? Who knows

 

You reply and I’m giddy. 

 

***

 

In order to do my job, I need to become a different person. My phone voice is obnoxious and peppy. It’s a trick to keep people on the phone. If you bring energy to the call, it’s infectious. Nobody wants to talk to a mumbling miserable mope. That guarantees an immediate hangup. 

 

When a call reaches the final pages of my script, the pricing, I break out in hives across my neck and my chest. It feels like an exorcism, the hives some signal that the Real Me is about to break out and seed doubt in a seamless close. Now click “purchase,” I command, cold. 

 

If you want to, or you can think about it, maybe you can’t afford it, you don’t have to if you want to wait, maybe I’ll call later, or just block my number. I swallow and stick to the script.

 

***

 

Before we move, my relationship with A is precarious. I don’t want to write this but it feels important to mention. At work, I talk to Kevin about how I think A will break up with me. My insecurity in our future is palpable.  We fight all of the time. A avoids me by drinking at a bar his friend manages on the Upper East Side until it closes and I’ve been asleep for hours. My best friend plans to move in with her boyfriend in the suburbs when our lease is up, and I feel like I’ll be the last one left in this city I can barely afford. I beg A to let me move to Pittsburgh with him, and resent him for not begging me to move for him.

 

***

 

My crush on you escalates as summer climbs to its hellish peak. New York is hot garbage and sweat. My friends outside of work all know about you. We call you my “work crush.” I text them screenshots of a picture you posted on Instagram so they can see what you look like. You know the one, you and three friends on an overcast beach. 

 

You spend more time loitering at my desk. You pull up images of the Cornwall holiday house in the movie About Time and tell me it used to be your family’s estate. I think this is bullshit but also a specific and strange lie. It could be plausible. You have roman numerals at the end of your name.

 

You tell me about a woman who was partially sucked out of a Southwest Airlines plane. The concept of being sucked out of a plane window at 32,000 feet altitude is horrifying and hilarious. Terrible enough that we can’t stop laughing, tears in our eyes. It’s disgusting, we’re disgusting for laughing. She died and this is tragic, but when you look at me over your shoulder, I choke down another giggle. 

 

You tell me that your father bought you a subscription box to Harrys, that shave company. I don’t remember if it was a birthday or Christmas gift. It must have been your birthday. He apparently had the same one, so every month, he’d send you a message. Did you get your box? Mine came today!

 

You haven’t worn your facial hair clean shaven for years. Each month a reminder comes in the mail that your father doesn’t really know you at all. You stack the purple boxes at the back of your closet. You tell your dad you love it.

 

You tell me about your interview for another job. I’m happy because I know you hate working here, but I’m sad because I don’t think we’ll stay in touch. 

 

***

 

In the office, our worth is explicit and numerical. The whiteboard between our desks displays neat columns, each of our names written in black at the top. Below Kelsey is a number in red, followed by a larger number in black. The first is the total revenue I’ve booked this month, the second is my quota, the minimum revenue I’m expected to book, or “crush.”

 

An online report displays a graph with our names stacked on the left, beside two columns of numbers: dials and talk time. Dials are shown in red until they surpass 45, yellow until they surpass 65, then green, though we are still expected to make a minimum of 80. Talk time is shown in red until 1.5, yellow until 2.25 when it finally turns green.  

 

My metrics are always double green, because I’m not very good at this job and need to prove that at least I’m trying. Your metrics are always red and we sometimes laugh at how few calls you’ve actually made. One day you’d made 13 calls. We thought it was hysterical. 

 

***

 

After you quit, Instagram is the only place we remain connected. You watch as I share my apartment stacked with boxes, A parking a U-Haul outside. You consume the version of myself I create for you. I post videos of my face in a flattering filter and then check obsessively to see when you’ve seen it. I tag the location of every bar I drink at in a one mile radius of your apartment so you can follow where I am. 

 

On Instagram, I’m light and self-absorbed. I stray further from myself. I post a selfie with a poll: Do I look cute right now? You vote yes. I grab my phone constantly. I post a story at my best friend’s beach house, where we set up three screens to display three Premier League matches. You reply: I’ve never loved you more than this vid. I’m possessed.

 

***

 

Before we move out of our apartment, our closest friends come over for one final evening of boxed wine, pizza and games. We play salad bowl, a charades hybrid where we write down names and act them out to each other. My friend Ashley picks up a scrap and then caresses my shoulders, miming affection for me. I blurt out my guess and Ashley sharply pulls her flat hand horizontally across her neck. We all burst out cackling when she reveals A’s name in her hand. 

 

I’d guessed you. 

 

***

 

The end of summer. Hurricane Irma barrels towards my sales territory. I call a woman who runs a boutique. She’s been waiting to get gas for two hours. The first station she tried ran out before her turn, and she fears this will happen again. My manager tells me to call her back. It’s not like she’s going anywhere. When she picks up the phone, she starts screaming before I even speak. I don’t even know if my store will still be there on Monday, and you want me to give you money? 

 

***

 

The last Monday night I’m in New York, I invite you to join my friends for trivia at Whiskey Town. I completely guess on a question about the periodic table and get it right. You drink gin and tonics. After the quiz, we say goodbye to my friends and I follow you around the corner to The Gray Mare. We sit at the end of the bar and I can tell the bartender thinks we are together. We talk about music and your parents and your ex-girlfriend, and we argue about whether we can accept the narrative of history as fact (you) or if we have a responsibility to interrogate the stories we are told (me). I drink something and you drink fernet. Outside, I order an Uber and we separate on the corner of 2nd Avenue. I’m in the backseat for less than a minute when I see you video-calling me on Instagram. You tell me you just wanted to see my face. 

 

***

 

A has been in our new apartment since the summer and introduces me to his new coworkers and his family friends. In Pittsburgh, I’m a person from New York. Or worse, I’m just A’s girlfriend. 

 

In New York, I was a whole person. On Instagram I projected the best version of that person. Now I’m disintegrating. I’m on the other side of a dividing line, a separation in my sense of self. Before New York: After New York. 

 

You're moving to LA this month to start your new job. I wonder how you feel, but don’t ask. 

 

***

 

My new sales team is all remote. We round up every morning on Google hangouts and talk about ways to create energy. I hit my BME, or best month ever. I return to New York just for a weekend because it feels like I need to.

 

***

 

Noble rot is a prestigious fungus affecting wine grapes. When grapes are infected under certain conditions, the infestation produces a concentrated sweet wine. The end of summer in New York: sweet, infected. 

 

***

 

I don’t see you come into the bar. I didn’t even know you were coming, though I must have told you, right? 

 

I feel insecure. Your black sweatshirt looks like it’s never been worn. You’re calculating my intoxication based on the number of empty tumblers on the table in front of me. Am I happy to see you? I’m lying if I say no. I’m lying if I say you look like shit.

 

Somehow you’re exactly my type and exactly every girl’s type. You’re hot in an obvious way. You’re hot in a universal way. You’re hot in a ‘would never be into me’ way.

 

It’s my friend’s birthday but our open bar has expired and I’m not sure where everyone is anymore. I’m aware of your arm around me. A warmth that wasn’t there before. We’ve never been this close to one another. You blurt that you really want to make out with me, stretching the vowels, reeeeeeally. We laugh. You’re a crazy person, I respond, howling. 

 

You walk me outside and I know this is a dumb idea but I tell myself that we can’t hear each other inside anyway. As much as I don’t want to be with you alone I know in New York you’re never alone and you’re always alone. I rest against the brick exterior of the building and look at the black spots on the sidewalk. It feels like I’m underwater. All the sound from the crowded bar is muffled, muted. 

 

You tug at my fingers, limp and dangling alongside my leg. Your palm is clammy, just like mine. You stoop over me, leaning forward so your eyes are level with mine. I think about how our eyes are the same, not just blue. A blue that flirts with green and mimics gray on rainy days. A sand colored ring carved in the iris. 

 

You kiss me on the corner of my mouth. It is not urgent or forceful or sexual. I’m motionless, or I think I am but I’m swaying back and forth. I’m insanely drunk.

 

You tell me you are in love with me. Maybe you say you think you’re in love with me. Is one better than the other? Or does it make no difference? I can’t digest your sincerity and my memory is distorted and broken. Maybe I made this all up? Did you say you loved me?

 

***

 

On the way home from the airport, I tell A everything. I tell him that you kissed me, that you showed up out of nowhere, that I don’t think I reciprocated. The car gets smaller. When I look up, he smiles. Did you think I’d be angry?

 

***

 

I think about that night and wonder what it would have been like if I was more sober. I don’t know. It would be easy to write that with a clear mind, I’d tell you I’m sorry, that I didn’t feel the same way. It would also be a lie.

 

I look up flights to Argentina and wonder what it would be like for us to book one way tickets and disappear. You hold a version of me I feel slipping away. What if I held on to her instead of letting go? 

 

***

 

I email you haiku and you never reply. I still don’t know if you ever read them. 

 

I think about you

whenever I hear P!nk sing

“heyyyyyyy what about us?” 

__ 

 

I keep checking if 

you have already seen my

instagram story

__ 

 

Do not dare tell me

That you are in love with me

It is fucking rude

 

***

I oscillate between the story I want to tell and the story of what is. I want it to be a story about New York, a story about the end of summer. I adjust the focus but nothing becomes clear. 

 

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