By Zahra Barnes
“We’re near a group of guys playing soccer,” Marley said over the phone. I tried to block out the noise from the screeching pack of children that had just swarmed around me. Their Popsicle-smeared mouths hinted that they were in the throes of a full-blown sugar rush. I grabbed Grant’s hand and scurried away, trying to find Marley on Central Park’s Great Lawn.
I looked around and saw everyone from toddlers to old men batting around black and white-patterned balls. America was still smitten after the World Cup. “There are ten billion people playing soccer, Mar. You’ll have to be a little more specific.” I hoisted my tote from lower on my arm to my shoulder in an attempt to stop the sweat that was collecting in the crook of my elbow. You know those girls who give off a dewy glow in summertime? That’s not me. Whenever the temperature goes above 75°, I turn into a swamp monster from hell.
“Okay, I’m waving my arms,” Marley puffed, her voice coming to me in bursts. “I’m wearing a bikini top with blue and white pants.” I stopped walking and spun around, looking for Marley’s signature dark, messy topknot. Finally, I spotted her some yards away, jumping up and down in enormous white and navy chevron-print palazzo pants. I would have looked like a moron, but Marley looked gorgeous. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Grant and I picked our way around the many people lying out, doing our best not to trip over any wayward limbs. A week after Marley’s party, a group of us were gathering in Central Park for a picnic complete with the type of luxe food I could usually only dream of. That was thanks to Marley. She was interning as a Bon Appetit recipe tester to beef up her résumé for culinary school, so it wasn’t unusual for her to take home leftovers like orange ginger salmon jerky or bourbon caramel marshmallows. It was the reason raiding her fridge was high on the list of my favorite activities.
“Hi, guys!” Marley almost toppled me with a hug. She grew up as the child of hippies who, perhaps to prove their authenticity, named her after their personal hero, Bob. We met when she went to a gallery opening soon after I started at Grey & Boehm, and we had been close ever since. She was the touchy-feeliest friend I had ever had. After she released me, I bent down and hugged our friend Finn, then his girlfriend Amy. Finn and I met our senior year at Ohio State when we were partnered together for an assignment in the astronomy course Planets and the Solar System. I went into the class expecting to get into heartfelt debates about why Pluto still deserved to be a planet. Instead, I was slapped in the face with an introduction to astrophysics. If it hadn’t been for Finn helping me out, I wouldn’t have scraped by with a B-. He and Amy started dating a bit after Grant and I got together, and we’d welcomed her into our group without hesitation.
I unfurled my picnic blanket and plopped onto it, shoving my aviators onto my head on the way down. “We just signed for a place!” I threw my arms in the air, still high over the rush of scoring an apartment. After last week’s debacle, I made it my mission to send out as many Craigslist feelers a day as possible. I organized this viewing at the last second, and we signed the papers right before heading over to Central Park. It was a cozy little one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. I was practically salivating over The Container Store binge that was in my future.
“What?!” Marley squealed and glanced around before passing me a cup of rosé. “Show me, show me, show me!” I pulled out my phone and opened a video tour of the place. “It has a breakfast nook? I think you’re officially an adult,” she said in awe.
“Yeah, and it’s close to so many good restaurants,” Grant added happily. He took off his loafers and dug his toes into the grass. Even his feet were sexy.
Finn grabbed my phone to take a better look. “Good find,” he said as he scrolled through the pictures. “This is an especially nice shot of the place,” he deadpanned and held up my phone so I could see what he was looking at. He had flipped too far back and landed on a picture of me trying to smize at the camera. I looked like I was having a stroke. Selfies have never really been my thing.
“Yeah, thanks.” I snatched my phone away and shoved him, laughing. “Speaking of nice things, that’s a cool tie, Finnegan.” He had always been a little self-conscious about his name, and emphasizing it usually got him to shut up. “Perfect for Central Park lounging.” I took a swig of my drink and smugly noted the flush spreading across his cheeks.
“I may have to go into work today,” he said while smoothing his tie down. Finn worked at a finance company, doing something in accounting I couldn’t quite understand even though he had explained it to me countless times.
“Really? I thought going into work on Saturdays was my thing. How’s it going at the office?” Finn finished straightening his tie as I spoke, and Amy immediately swooped in to fix his collar. They were like a well-oiled machine.
He opened his mouth to respond, but Amy jumped in first. “Before he starts complaining, please remember he makes almost six figures before his bonus.” She rolled her eyes and patted his chest.
“But what does it matter if I don’t have time to do anything with the money?” he countered. Over many beers in college, Finn had told me all about how he felt pressured to follow in his big brother Connor’s footsteps. At 29, Connor was one of the finance world’s quickly-rising stars. Finn obviously had a natural aptitude for that kind of thing, and he seemed open to taking that path. Now I was starting to wonder if he was just resigned to it.
Amy pursed her lips and spooned some olive and parmesan tapenade onto rosemary crackers. She worked in merchandising for J.Crew, and was used to living a charmed life. Being with Finn, who would one day make serious bank, was a part of that package.
“So, what are you going to do about it?” I directed at Finn. He paused before answering and I put an entire crostini topped with truffle-infused cheese into my mouth, then had to stop my eyes from rolling back into my head in quasi-orgasmic pleasure. My life’s eternal question is this: which do I love more, food or sex? At that moment, food was the clear victor.
Finn finally shrugged and squinted at the sky. “I don’t know if I can do anything about it right now. Just going to stick it out.”
I shook my head emphatically and finished swallowing before I dropped some knowledge. “Finn, this is New York. Not to sound like a cheesy ass, but you can do anything you want here. There’s no reason to let yourself get stuck in something you hate.”
Amy shot me an annoyed look and I stared her down. As much as I liked her, sometimes I just couldn’t stand how uptight she was. It was even evident in how we were sitting—the rest of us were sprawled all over each other like a pile of puppies, and she, not a blond hair out of place, couldn’t deviate from the bolt straight posture years of ballet had ingrained in her. She was the perfect person to go to for tough love, but sometimes her lack of emotion made her seem like a scary robot. I broke eye contact and pushed the top of my dress down so I was just in my bikini top.
My ancestry is as mixed up as Jonathan Travolta trying to introduce Idina Menzel, so my skin tone typically defaults to “just got back from a two weeks in the tropics.” I had been spending so much time at Grey & Boehm that my usual nutty color had taken on a sickly yellow undertone, and I was psyched to get some sun. I piled my hair on top of my head, spread sunblock all over myself and lay down on my back. I felt Marley’s head settle onto my stomach.
“I went on that date last night,” she started.
“With the guy from Tinder? And?”
“It was weird. He kept asking me my thoughts on various conspiracy theories. We’re on a first date, I don’t want to talk about presidents getting assassinated,” she explained without remorse. “But I have another one tonight, with someone from OkCupid.” Marley threw herself headlong into whatever she was currently obsessed with. At the moment, it was dating.
I propped myself up on my elbows and shielded my face. “Mar, the internet is great and all, but look around. Central Park in summer is basically a meat-market.” I waved my arm grandiosely and surveyed the scene. There were Columbia grad students and hot, potentially divorced dads galore.
“At least on the internet I can take some time to figure out how to respond to them. You know how tongue-tied I get!” Poor Marley. She was incredibly outgoing, but a hot guy rendered her mute. As Amy gave her some how-to-be-assertive advice, I dozed off.
I woke up to my phone chirping with its “You need to be at Grey & Boehm in an hour!” alarm. Since lying out in the park has the same effect on me as a horse tranquilizer probably would, I knew I’d need a wake-up call so I could make it to work on time. Marian had asked me to come in to meet our new hire before the space filled with people wanting to see Imogen’s exhibit.
When I got to the gallery, Marian was talking to a willowy woman with copper-colored hair who looked to be about my age. Their heads both swiveled as I entered and a small smile twitched on Marian’s lips, which was her version of an effusive greeting. “Ah, here she is. Tessa, this is Olivia, our new Artist Marketing Liaison. Olivia, as I told you, Tessa is our Event Coordinator. You two will have to work very closely together.”
Olivia and I shook hands and I subtly sized her up. Her features were a little off. Her chin was a tad pointy and her hazel eyes were huge, but the end result was stunning. “You can call me Liv. Nice to meet you,” she grinned at me. Gorgeous teeth, too.
“You, too! Welcome to Grey & Boehm.”
Marian disappeared into her office, so Liv and I spent some time chatting. She had just finished up the same type of marketing job for Royce Hall, UCLA’s center for performing arts. We were making a push to snag more impressive talent at Grey & Boehm, so we needed all the help we could get. Liv excused herself to the bathroom, and I walked over to my desk to take a seat. All that sun had made me a little woozy.
There was a gift bag sitting on my desk. Puzzled, I unwrapped it and found a beautiful hammered rose gold ring dish from Anthropologie. “A pre-apartment warming present, and a reward for your dedication to Grey & Boehm,” a card read in Marian’s distinctive slanted script. I was touched. This was how she was always able to reel me back in. Yeah, maybe she’d make me do unreasonable things like spend my entire day off at the office, but without fail, she showed me how much she appreciated me afterward. I knew she noticed everything I did, and that only made me want to work harder.
Marian emerged from her office and I held up the dish, walking over to her. “Marian, thank you so much! I love it.”
She looked pleased. “Well, I know you had plans on opening night, but Imogen would never have done the show if not for you,” she admitted.
She reached a hand toward me and I, surprised, leaned in to give her a hug. Marian wasn’t the type to ever show any physical affection. I realized too late that she was just trying to pick some lint from my top. I paused for a second, then dropped one arm and awkwardly patted her shoulder with the other hand. So smooth.
Liv joined us. “Tessa, are you busy?” Marian took a subtle step away from me and focused her sight on us like a laser. “I was telling Olivia you know so much about the city. Perhaps you should take her for a drink and get to know one another.” I knew Marian just wanted us to get along so the office would run as smoothly as possible, but I hated when she sprung stuff on me. My crazy roommate Julie was out of town and I was excited to have a pantless Netflix and wine session before Grant came over later.
Liv looked delighted and relieved, though. “That sounds great!” she said to me, staring at me with those big eyes.
“Sure!” I pasted a bright smile on my face. A quick drink couldn’t hurt. “I actually know of a great spot not too far from your place,” I offered. Liv had mentioned that she lived on the Lower East Side, where I’d be moving soon with Grant. “Verlaine makes the best lychee cocktails you’ll ever have. It’ll be a good introduction to the neighborhood.”
As soon as we sat down and ordered, the questions came rapid-fire. “Okay, we’re away from the office.” Liv’s huge eyes gleamed mischievously, and in that moment I knew I liked her. “What’s the deal with Marian? What’s she like? Spill.”
I laughed. “What do you mean?” I knew Marian was odd, but I was feeling extra loyal after the gift.
“She’s obviously brilliant and big in the art world,” Liv paid her verbal dues. The waitress placed the first of two lychee martinis on the table and Liv smiled up and nodded her thanks. God, this place had speedy service. Liv took a tentative sip and her eyes widened appreciatively.
“Good, right?” I took a hearty gulp of my own. I could already feel it warm my insides and start to undo the stress I had been dealing with the past week. Between artists’ egos and our efforts to land better shows, the pressure had been ramping up. Now with Liv on board, some of the burden would hopefully come off me. That giddy realization combined with the alcohol tempted to loosen my tongue.
“Marian is a character, obviously. But she’s so hugely influential. Dealing with her, uh, strong personality is totally worth it. I mean, I’m sure you experienced that sort of thing in the LA art scene.” I steered her away from the topic of Marian. I was fine with some good-natured gossip, but I didn’t feel right getting into details, like the time I did some web snooping and found Marian’s very strange eHarmony profile.
Liv regaled me with tales of LA life and stories about her former boss. “He was a total pig.” She shook her head and fished the lychee out of the bottom of her martini glass. “A total pig who was amazing in bed.” Liv closed her eyes and I couldn’t tell whether she was savoring the fruit or the memory of her boss’ sexual talents.
I almost choked on my drink. Was she serious? Did she consider this getting-to-know-you conversation?
Liv opened her eyes and read my expression in an instant. “Oh, it was a total mistake. I was dumb. It happened once, and I couldn’t salvage the situation. So I left,” she said lightly, shrugging like she was talking about something as casual as spilling her drink at the bar. After another hour and a half with Liv, we parted ways. Even though the admission about her boss had thrown me, I admired that she gave herself permission to be so open.
I headed to my apartment to meet Grant. As the cab raced uptown, I let my head loll against the leather seat and watched the lights of the city flash by. I’m in New York, living my dream, I told myself. The thought would hit me at the most random times and I’d get a sort of bird’s-eye view of my life, realizing how lucky I was. Seeing Grant threw my euphoria into overdrive. I was the human equivalent of the heart-eyed emoji.
“Someone had a good day after the park.” Clearly amused by my mood, Grant wrapped me in his arms once we were outside my door.
“I did,” I nodded happily. “How was yours?” Remnants of my tipsiness made it hard for me to fit my key in the lock.
“Good. I worked on that big presentation I’ve got coming up in a few weeks. Time to blow off some steam.” Grant had been working on this project for months. If he really killed it, there was a chance he’d get a major raise and potentially even a promotion.
I was still struggling with the door, and Grant took the opportunity to turn me around and slip his hand up my dress.
“You looked so hot all day in this thing,” he whispered in my ear. He lightly traced his lips along my neck and I promptly turned into a wobbly-kneed, babbling puddle of goo. I tugged at his belt and we kissed until we were in danger of using the hallway floor as a bed, neighbors be damned. I forced myself to turn around, focused all my brain power on that door, and finally got us inside. We tumbled onto the couch, breathing heavily already, and Grant gave me something else to smile about.