February 18, 2016
William Cho never ceased to be amazed. Here he was in the penthouse of one of the most luxurious hotels in Manhattan, in the midst of a great spiral of artists and patrons. Strange accents buzzed past his ears. A Persian woman passed by with owl feathers braided into her hair. There was snow blowing around out on the balcony, and beyond it more snow was falling a hundred stories to the streets. A Somali man by the window gestured wildly, his platinum watchband glinting in a spotlight. Diamonds ringed the neck of a white girl on the bathroom line, who couldn’t be older than twenty. She and a Brazilian boy of about the same age studied a twisting glass sculpture that reminded William of a tidal wave, frozen solid. And here he was among them, feeling strangely rich by association, not least because he was standing there talking to—being talked to, really—by Sara Sherman, of all people.
William didn’t kid himself that Sara actually remembered him. Back in Ithaca, these four had traveled nearly everywhere as a pack. While every other college clique experienced seismic shifts and occasional mergers, they had never grown apart. “The Murphys,” people had called them. William had especially adored Irene, the doe-eyed beauty who’d been habitually late for Art History II. The persistent rumor on campus was that she wasn’t actually a student but a townie who had nevertheless been elected Treasurer of the Ballroom Dance Society and had several pieces put up in the Digital Media gallery—all without paying a cent of tuition. William didn’t have a hard time imagining why doors opened for her. She used the library, attended lectures, and spent the night in the dorms, forever popping up where least expected, haunting the school, simply belonging. But he had never spoken to her or her friends once in four years.
Now they were all at the same party. It wasn’t, of course, a coincidence.
William had been living in Murray Hill and working at Joyce, Bennett, and Salzmann, a boutique downtown investment firm with its fair share of wealthy partners and wealthier clients. He’d been there for three uncomfortable years. Even before Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch had sent everyone into a panic, William had been worried about getting laid off. Just like college, the real world was all a game of who you knew. When the bosses began sending pink slips to the print server, they’d start with the people they didn’t care for—or even remember. William knew he had no presence. Not at JB&S. Not anywhere. He always skipped the big holiday party, the weekend retreat at Bennett’s house in East Hampton, and even the celebratory lap around the island on Salzmann’s yacht after the Fontainebleau merger had come through, thanks largely to William’s own analyses. William had spent those evenings like all the others: at home in his apartment watching old movies. Which is what he’d have been doing the night of the party, if he hadn’t seen Irene two weeks earlier at the gallery.
Mr. Joyce had sent William downtown to pick up a monstrous mural of deboned chickens that his wife had commissioned from an artist named Xeer Sool who was, apparently, very hot just then. And there she’d been! Irene Richmond! In greasy overalls, beautiful as ever, trying to help an angry Austrian sculptor bolt ceiling fan blades together at precise thirty-nine-degree angles. She didn’t look up, but William knew she’d never have recognized him if she had. He had been wallpaper at school. If they made beige wallpaper you couldn’t even tell wasn’t paint. It didn’t matter. He could not get her out of his head. He had actually had dreams about her—always in black and white, as if she were a woman in one of his movies.
Then the following week he’d seen the invitation for the K Gallery Christmas party arrive with Mr. Joyce’s mail. He knew Mrs. Joyce would be in Vail with her husband anyway and wouldn’t be able to go. So, just like the champagne bottle, he’d stolen it. They were going to fire him anyway. Still, it had been a week of hemming and hawing before he’d decided to go as an envoy of Mrs. Joyce’s—merely hoping to catch sight of Irene again. He’d never for a moment imagined he’d speak to her, let alone that she’d be twenty feet away, smiling at him.
For her part, Irene was mainly happy that Sara had someone to talk to, since she still had to schmooze for work and George and Jacob could never be pried apart. She knew odds were good that Sara would try to adopt William. She was forever picking up strays—after all, she’d once been one of them. Irene did notice that William kept looking at her. Looking at her and then looking quickly away, that is, as if she were the sun and might damage his retinas if he stared too long. She waited until he stared again and raised her champagne flute in one hand.
William looked away so fast, he thought he’d pulled a ligament. Or whatever you had in your neck. What would she think of him, leering like that? Oh. Except that now she was mouthing “thank you.” What on earth for? Oh. For the champagne. All right then.
Sara was explaining that George had become an astronomer as he’d always planned. Well, a researcher. Well, a research assistant. But at a quite respected observatory and certainly on his way to gaining faculty status when his research was completed. She was beckoning to George and Jacob so wildly that they finally had to come over. “Jacob was in classics too. You must have been in some of the same classes!” Sara insisted, “That department was the size of a postage stamp. There were only four professors—Douglas, Jones, Khan, and oh! the alcoholic one. Wilfrey!”
“Why do you have the 2003 classics faculty memorized?” Jacob asked.
Sara tapped her right temple. “Like a steel trap.”
Jacob looked at William. “Well, mine’s a hunk of Swiss cheese. I swear I just can’t remember you. Nothing personal.”
Sara knew he was lying. Jacob did remember him, and it damn well was personal that he was pretending otherwise. Why would he do such a thing? Jacob could be a jerk when he wanted to be, and he nearly always wanted to be. Over the years she’d tried to introduce several new friends to the group, but they never lasted.
This time would be different though. William was blushing every time he caught sight of Irene. They were perfect for each other. At least a lot more perfect than the awful people that Irene had crashed in and out of bed with lately. Sara mentally reviewed the full 2008 batting order: Connie the bitter divorcée; Sasha the former figure skater with the “mild” coke habit; “Cowboy” Lenny who had turned out to be “Cult Member” Lenny; and Anne, a Lower East Side chef with a mean streak longer than the wait at her restaurant. But now there was something softening in Irene’s stance when she turned toward William.
KRISTOPHER JANSMA is the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Award for Fiction. His debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award and was long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. He has written for The New York Times, The Believer, Story, The Millions, ZYZZVA, Slice, and the Blue Mesa Review. An assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz and a graduate instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, Jansma lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and son.
From WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY by Kristopher Jansma, published on February 16, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Kristopher Jansma, 2016.