I still see women like her all over the Upper East side, holding a few too many shopping bags, some from stores that have long since closed. The traces of a privileged childhood and dissolved marriage linger on their faces like dinner guests who don't want to go home to an empty house.
I met Jeannie during the summer of my junior year at college and while at the time she seemed of an indeterminate age with her blonde page boy hair cut, apple cheeks and squat little body, she was likely no older than 40. Our paths had literally first crossed in Nantucket: she was barreling down Main Street in a large group and bumped into me: wearing an oversized Mickey Mouse t-shirt, white jeans and holding a gin and tonic between fingers full of beautiful rings, she told me had inherited from her grandmother when I admired them. She hugged me as though we had both won a game show and told me I reminded her of a niece of a brother she no longer spoke to. Her eyes welled as she began to explain before being jostled away by the herd. We continued to run into each other in the ensuing summer weeks: on people’s boats, at the beach (she tucked a large pink towel around her entire body, explaining: “No one is seeing what’s underneath this anymore!” ) One time I found her crying at the back of a bar because her boyfriend had gone off to another party without telling her. As she hugged me, the top of her head smelled like fruit. I realized it was coming from the wedges in her drink she clutched in one hand.
When I needed a place to crash in Manhattan while looking for a job she insisted I stay with her for a few days. “I’m in the right neighborhood,” she said as if that’s all there was to it. She lived in a dignified yet small building off of Lexington Avenue in the 70s. As the doorman buzzed me in, I fleetingly entertained an image of me coming home after a glamorous day at the office, to join my husband at cocktail hour before a fire. Jeannie lived there with her teenage son, his father and her ex-husband no longer in the picture or even mentioned, his absence like silt on a window obstructing what could otherwise have been a glorious view. Jeannie had been a model in her twenties and for a very brief time, an actress in a Broadway show. On the day that I arrived she was flush from a visit downtown, wrapped like a prize fighter in a mink coat having asked the producer of the show to see if he would lend her money to help pay for her son’s prep school education. As she recounted her encounter to him with me, I could see how the coat’s sleeves were too short but she looked fearless just the same and I believed in her cause. She showed me her old Playbill and kept repeating: “I was here, don’t you see? I was here!” I nodded, even though I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
She was leaving that night for her boyfriend’s house in the Hamptons and she insisted I take her bedroom. I lay down that night in her bed, unsure of what I was doing the next day. For a moment I pretended my husband was about to lie down next to me and that our wonderful son slept down the hall. On a handsome antique bureau sat a cluster of silver-framed pictures: one of Jeannie as a child on a lush lawn by herself and another of her dancing in a white dress and gloves with an older man. Below I could see that one of the handles on the top drawer was missing. And below that, another. I walked over to admire the oil paintings on the wall until my eye settled on water mark stains blooming on the floral wallpaper above them. In the corner was a box full of large unopened bottles of Evian. I got into her bed and pulled the worn Porthault sheets closer.
The next morning, as her son and I awkwardly stood in the kitchen as though we were siblings, I asked if the water was safe to drink. "Oh absolutely," he said from underneath his bangs. I explained about the Evian bottles. "When my dad and she first moved into the apartment they were doing a bunch of work and had no water for like a week so my father arranged this delivery service for her.”
“How long ago?” I asked as casually as I could, as if by knowing, it would set back the clock, reverse anyone and anything who had ever crossed the threshold and not come back home.
“Before I was born,” he said, handing me a bowl already filled with what looked like Rice Krispies. He then poured the milk over them, sloshing it slightly, so that the liquid almost keeled over the sides until I righted it just in time. Then, like we had been doing so all our lives, we both sat down. I never saw Jeannie again.