She often thinks about killing herself, if only in passing. People never suspect it of her because she doesn’t have a reason—not one that makes the list of acceptable justifications for killing oneself (the death of one’s soulmate, perhaps, or beating a terminal illness to the punch). She has, by checklist standards, a decent life. She’s endured her losses—the passing of her favored grandmother, the disappearance of a girl from her English class who later washed up near the 12th Street pier—but none of them close enough to account for an earned depression. She has loving parents—older, distant, but they tried. They never meddled or pretended to understand what kids her age were into, hadn’t demanded a field of study or career path. They even helped her pay for college—no checkbox there. She did well in school, got a job right after graduation. It’s dull there in her cubicle, her tasks often secretarial though she is qualified to do more, but no job is to be scoffed at by the class of ‘09. She even has health insurance. She is, by all external measurements, fine.
But “fine” is irrelevant at one’s core, like memorizing the periodic table only to discover those elements most fundamental to human life violate all the chart’s governing tenets. It’s why she’s always found logical arguments against suicide odd, as if rational thinking were any match for something as unwieldy as pain, as if one could talk sense into a broken bone.
Then again, rationalization has kept her alive this long; she’s usually deterred by the thought of how badly it will make other people feel. She imagines taking the 7 train out to Queens, checking into some grim motel, hourly rates available, color TV. She could fill its scum-ringed bathtub, swallow a fistful of pills, sink into a warm oblivion. But then she thinks of the housekeeping girl charged with cleaning her room, who’d discover her withered body in the morning. And she feels sorry for her.
This is what she’s learned from all the health classes and made-for-TV movies, those homilies half-absorbed from the back pew—suicide as a selfish act, a burden that inflicts discomfort on those left behind. But being alive so often makes her uncomfortable, and nobody ever talks about that.
She isn’t planning to do it, not tonight. She’s planning to get a drink with a colleague from work. True, she stopped taking her meds again, but only because they make her tired, so tired, and not a normal, corporal exhaustion either, a stinging chemical tired she can feel at the front of her brain. The meds weight her limbs, give her neck aches, blur her vision as if she is looking at the world through a set of slow-leak goggles. But tonight—one month free—she feels better than she has in a long time, muscles limber, craving movement again. Her mind, too: more agile, broader, re-lacing connective tissue where the drugs had disintegrated it. Never mind that she has known sadness like tidewater since she was small—maybe, she thinks, I don’t need the drugs anymore. Maybe they were the culprit this whole time.
She arrives in Williamsburg to meet Charles-From-Marketing, but he’s cancelled last-minute, or last-minute enough that she’d already boarded the subway and only receives his text when she comes up from underground. The invitation had been vague in its intentions and she hadn’t really minded—she didn’t know whether she wanted to go on a date with him. But the prospect of being wanted had been nice. New Yorkers’ profound flakiness, the way they so quickly surrendered social plans to the will of the city, has always been her least favorite aspect of the place. She understands—to complete a basic task often requires double the amount of time one might consider reasonable, and on top of it one’s failures were constantly on public display. She, too, had taken advantage of the city’s lax cancellation policy when things had been particularly bleak last spring. Oh well, she’s here now. She enters their agreed upon bar anyway, orders a pair of picklebacks on special—the place is at least still good for a happy hour deal—and lets the whiskey warm through her, effervescent.
Perhaps the fact that Charles lives in Williamsburg should have tipped her off to his undesirability as a companion, the neighborhood so thoroughly cannibalized by corporations playing hipster dress-up that it is unrecognizable. She’d lived here once, years ago, when it was still on the cusp. She and Julian, her only serious boyfriend, had a humid fifth-floor walk-up on Boriquen, jerry-rigged with plywood cabinets that started up too high for her to reach. Still, she and Julian spent a lot of time in the apartment, respite from the city’s din, trying to replicate recipes by the Times’ new food critic, watching old movies, and starting and aborting a variety of video installation projects.
She loved him with a fierce, jealous love, and an admiration for the ease with which he moved through the world. She was often overcome by the need to touch him—run her fingers along the back of his neck or hold his hand, a desire borne less of sexual chemistry than the hope that his confidence and wit might diffuse through his skin and into her.
His only flaw was that through all the sous chefdom, the fusion bistros and IFC picks, he never asked for her opinion, and eventually she remembered that she’d once had her own favorite restaurants and films and ideas. She’d tried to introduce a few of her more innocuous preferences, suggesting BBQ joints and movies in color, but for Julian taste was objective, linked to a moral hierarchy in which his inclinations happened to rank well, and his dislikes were an ethical affront. After a while she’d given up, focusing on the interests that overlapped, and life was pleasant. Only some nights, when she felt in danger of losing herself, she’d walk to the river and let the salt water bring her back again—a childhood played out along the Jersey coast, coated in sand and grease from her parents’ fry stall. The river wasn’t beautiful, exactly, but the brine was enough. She often thought of her father there, of a night long ago when he’d found her on water’s edge, crying over a slight by some boy. Usually her mother was the one to placate her in those moments, but that night was dark and spangled, and he stood beside her with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans and said, “real voyagers chart their course by the stars, not off the lights of passing ships.” How wise he was, she’d thought in that moment, and she swelled with pride. A few weeks ago, she saw the line on an inspirational internet post and realized he’d just been quoting someone. Anyway, there were never any stars to speak of over New York City.
When Julian’s job transferred him to LA he asked her to come with him. A Friday evening in summer, the weekend laid out blank and spacious before them, they were sitting on the couch drinking wine from tumblers while he gushed about his promotion. It was magic hour, and the honeyed remains of the day’s sun made certain things—fresh starts, palm trees—seem possible. She would’ve gone had he said something that even suggested romance, that he needed her.
“You don’t have any reason to stay here,” was what he’d said instead. And though technically he wasn’t wrong, it was the certainty in his voice that made her decision. She kept the apartment and the Ikea bed he didn’t think would survive the trip, though she still hadn’t learned to sleep in the middle.
She hadn’t lost it over Julian or anything. More like his absence left a space into which her own wraiths could expand. By winter they had bloated bigger than her, filled the apartment, and she went to the doctor. He was kind but unaffected, having an urban clientele with a gambit of problems both smaller and much more pressing than hers. After three visits he prescribed for her what he did most everyone else: Paxil and a vitamin D supplement.
The specters receded, and she moved out to get a head start—to south Brooklyn, which was cheaper and more residential, if not exactly quieter. Now returning to Williamsburg feels a bit like rubbernecking, this new neighborhood refashioned atop the one in which she’d lived. She takes her usual route to the water, past the sour-smelling chocolate factory whose artisanal flavor she’s always suspected was just burnt, toward the new condos, four gray towers that rise fresh along the river’s edge. She is surprised at how tasteless the concrete and metal look alongside the ghost of the Domino factory and the brownstones that fill the rest of the borough. In her neighborhood, she’s noticed the gentrifiers buying and gutting row homes but taking pains to protect the buildings’ facades and salvage the fixtures. She’d written it off as a yuppie trend, straw-grab for authenticity, but now, looking at the drab alternative, she concedes that perhaps they are not motivated solely by pretension after all.
She watches the last of the sunset over Manhattan—violet and black, bejeweled noir. What a trick that its true grandeur can only be seen from a distance.
When she turns to make the walk back to Bedford, she notices the music, unrecognizable pop strain made tinny by distance. She tries to pinpoint its origin and notices a cobalt strobe on the roof of one of the towers, disco lighthouse to the East River. Is it her imagination or is the light blinking in rhythm with the song? It feels like an invitation, or at least a better option than going home to sweat into her pleather couch, scrolling through Netflix and wondering if she’d be better off with Julian around to make the decision for her after all.
And she wants to see what they look like inside, the towers.
She has always been plagued by an unadventurous spirit. Fear has ruled since she was small, and even then she was aware her feelings weren’t like everyone else’s, that adults would prefer her to be happier, more lighthearted. She envied her classmates who had no qualms about leaping from the jetty, or riding the looping boardwalk coasters. Still, over the years she’s acquired a taste for wandering into places she doesn’t belong. It offers her a subtle thrill, one she can achieve with both feet on the ground.
She’s always had a knack for invisibility. As a child she’d been convinced it was a more literal affliction—she struggled to activate motion sensor faucets; automatic doors wouldn’t open for her. Her mother had assured her she was in fact visible, that she just needed to grow a few inches, but the truth is she’s continued to go unnoticed into adulthood by humans and machines alike. She is still short and pale and thin-haired, and looks so mild it’s impossible for strangers to fathom she is anywhere other than in a place she is allowed to be.
So she smiles at the security guard and takes her best guess at the direction of the elevator bay, which, because the building’s layout is identical to every New York office complex, is correct. Inside, the building has a kind of hip-hop aspirational glow. The designers have attempted to circumvent the garishness of fluorescent bulbs by casting them through translucent pink lampshades. A lounge running opposite the front desk features a peninsula of pilling couches and a row of built-ins that, she realizes as she approaches, are filled with cardboard books.
She takes the elevator—also pink-lit—to the top floor, the emergency stairs to the roof. The door is propped open with a Styrofoam cooler of Brooklyn Lager; she pulls one up from the ice and uses her housekey to pry off the cap. The music is clear now, though she still doesn’t recognize it, something clubby, the lyrics with a Scandinavian lilt. She bypasses a card table hosting tubs of hummus and baby carrots and grainy-looking chips—she has a rule about consuming unsupervised food—beneath it a bucket of Angry Orchard and canned white wine spritzers. At the end of the table the strobe, a multicolored polyhedron straight out of a 90s novelty store, except that it’s tethered to a laptop via USB. She had been right, too—its clear up close—the pulse and color shifts with the tempo of the playlist.
She swigs a big mouthful of beer. It meets the whiskey in her stomach with a flourish. The river view draws her away, the water black but metallic with the reflection of its bridges. There was a suspension bridge where she’d grown up, too, umbilical tie between the shore islands and the rest of the state. She has turbid memories of late nights in the backseat, after traffic died down, of trips to May’s Landing where her parents purchased vats of oil and white vinegar wholesale and rolled them into the back of their van. She’d been afraid of the bridge then, convinced the lights perched on the cables were other cars’ headlights, and that her family, too, would have to drive along the steep curvature of the wire. Now she likes the lights, imagines the city hiring someone to tightrope along the bridge to change the bulbs. She has missed her calling—DOT trapeze artist. Perhaps it isn’t too late.
She cracks another beer, tilts her head back to let the liquid move through her. She looks away from the river, feels a few people near the roof’s edge sizing her up, trying to discern whether they know her and from where. It would be hard to tell—a bit of distance, the glare—and anyway they are the outliers. Most of the guests are already dancing in the way that sometimes happens in New York, premature for the hour and the size of the party but frenetic, a shedding of hours spent cramped in subways, cubicles, studio apartments.
It, too, reminds her of being young, the school socials at which she and her classmates used dancing as an excuse to rub against one another, insatiable. Middle school—so little of it remained for her. Peach schnapps under the boardwalk with girls from her math class; at home later, trying to retch quietly so as not to wake her mother. Winter wind off the ocean wobbling her bike’s handlebars, and the peculiar sight of snow on sand. The thrill of bare shoulders on the first warm day. A constant rotation of shampoos, trying to strip the smell of fried food from her hair. The nights her father took pity on her and let her off early from work—sometimes running to the pier for a chance to be cajoled into Spin the Bottle by her savvier classmates, sometimes going home and curling up opposite the air conditioning unit with her stack of Agatha Christies. She doesn’t miss it, exactly, but doesn’t prefer her current life, either. Holdover side effect of the medication, she concludes, the worst one: indifference.
Then, in the opposite corner of the roof, she spots Charles-From-Marketing. He is holding court with two bearded men, and as she looks on she feels a heat in her chest like the whiskey repeating on her. His flaws are so evident to her now: he is blotchy and his eyebrows converging; he has an annoying habit of restating the points of others without fully knowing he’s doing it, so that he, too, is convinced they are his ideas; she is sure, noting the glint of his crystal watch face, that despite these things he earns more money than her. Now as blasé as she’d felt about their hypothetical date, she is decidedly uncool with seeing him here—jealous even, though of what it’s hard to pinpoint. His cohort, too, annoys her; what could they possibly have to offer that might warrant the urgent cancelling of plans? Is her company so unpleasant as to be undesirable even in a small dose and mitigated by the promise of alcohol?
She stares at him, willing him to look up, and when he does she gives him her best eye-narrow, until it looks like he might actually come over and apologize. She downs another beer in its entirety, her eyes still fixed upon him. Only when he takes a step in her direction does she lower her gaze. She turns and flips her hair for a dramatic departure, but as she does it she feels her elbow smash against what she knows is the flesh of another person, then the splash of tepid beer she must have knocked from that person’s grip.
“I’m sorry,” she says when she unclenches her eyes, sees a man standing before her with a half-empty beer and a look of surprise. “Julian?” she says. But he doesn’t hear her and when she blinks again it isn’t him.
“No worries,” he says, running a hand over his hair. “Sorry for spilling on you.” He still does look quite a lot like Julian—thick hair cut short on the sides and quaffed into a fudge swirl, eyes that droop at the outside corners.
Not-Julian asks her name; she tells him. He promptly begins a story about another woman he’d known with that name, while he was an exchange student for a semester in Guadalajara, but she only half-listens to his tales of cultural epiphany as curated by the Rotary Club, white as a hospital bedsheet, and about as captivating.
“So how do you know Rider?” he says when he realizes, finally, that she is not paying attention. She doesn’t answer. “The host?”
“Mutual friends?” he tries.
She’s finished her beer. She takes the bottle from his hand, slugs what’s left of it. “Nope,” she says.
“How’d you get in the building?”
Not-Julian scoffs. She watches him look pointedly out over the party. Trying to flag down Rider, she’d bet. Meanwhile, Charles sees his opening and starts toward her again, having either been jealous of Not-Julian or shamed by his mates.
Again she turns her back on the impending Charles, that’s easy enough. But now Not-Julian has found who he was looking for and is waving him over—a lanky man, hair bleached and top-knotted. She doesn’t know what Not-Julian will tell him, whether he will introduce them or suggest he eject her from the premises, but she finds both prospects equally embarrassing. She gets the feeling that she is being triangulated, map-flattened, that maybe the men are even working together, but either way threatening to shrink her view of the river. It is time to leave.
She cuts her violet, mirrored eyes across each man, lingering for a moment on Not-Julian—he can take a message to his doppelganger: decision made. Then she ducks beneath their shoulder line, pushing out from their hem. It doesn’t take her the full length of the roof to reach top speed. The ledge does not slow her, an easy hurdle as she sprints for the bridge, just a few strides away. She’ll swallow up a lamp from the tip of a cable, seraphim gargoyle with a globe of light in her belly. From there, a return to the horizon.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War (Random House, 2015). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s, BOMB, Guernica, Electric Literature, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University, and the fiction editor for Blunderbuss Magazine.
This is where I learned to jump off a cliff without hurting myself, a surprisingly transferable life lesson.