“You know those parties where you sort of know people but you don’t really so you end up standing off to the side making awkward eye contact, and then you drink too much because you just get so fucking bored, and then you suddenly know everyone so much better but you realize the next morning that they know you as the girl who started strip dancing on the table or crying on the couch?” It was a thin girl with bony fingers that pinched the last half inch of a cigarette.
“But I was told that I should know you.” She paused and took a drag of her cigarette. She shook her head as she blew the smoke out through her nose. “Before I get too drunk, anyways, so here I am.”
“Oh,” Jan said.
“So, there’s beer in the fridge, you want one?” She asked.
“Yeah,” Jan said. “Thanks.” She handed him a can.
“Is this fun for you? I think there are plenty of interesting people, but other than the ones from the office, I don’t really know anyone.”
“What’s your name again?” Jan asked.
“Isla,” she said. “You know, Alef said she’d introduce us.”
“Course,” Jan said.
Isla laughed and flicked her cigarette into the sink.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Oh,” Isla said. “I’m going to be a senior. So, this summer I’ve been interning with Alef at Details. It’s been really great and Alef says they might feature some of my photographs in the upcoming issue. Do you read Details?
“Not really,” Jan said.
“It’s pretty cool. Have you been working this summer?”
“Not really,” Jan said.
There was a silence as she looked at him closely and he looked at the spots on the wooden cabinet above her head.
“Excuse me,” a man in an orange flannel pushed past Jan. He opened the fridge and gathered three beers in his arms.
“Hey,” he smiled at Isla. “Nice necklace,” he gestured at the gold wishbone around her neck.
“How do you know Alef?” she asked Jan. The man shoved the kitchen door open and walked back into the living room.
“I know Shari,” Jan said.
“Her girlfriend, right?” Jan nodded. “Well cool,” Isla pushed herself up and sat on the kitchen counter, letting her feet dangle. Her heels thudded against the dishwasher. “How do you know Shari?”
“I’m best friends with her younger brother,” Jan said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The apartment felt stuffy and suffocating even though the windows were open.
“David? Isn’t he dead?” Jan could see the veins that snaked around Isla’s eyes and over her temples.
“Yeah, but I knew him before he was dead.”
“Oh,” the girl said and then added awkwardly, “I’m sorry, I guess.”
“From high school,” Jan said. He tugged on the collar of his tee shirt. He heard from the living room the sound of breaking glass and people laughing.
“Where have you been?” Shari had said to him over the phone when she called him two days ago. “You’re going back to college in a few weeks and what have you done all summer? Just come, it’s my birthday and I want to see you.”
“I’d like to, but I’m a little tired.” Jan said.
“You can’t keep using that excuse.” Shari said. “As they say on the shoe ads in the subway, you can sleep when you’re dead.”
“I know, but I’ve things to do.”
“Like what? Anna tells me you sit around and eat cereal all day.”
“Well fuck Anna,” Jan said.
“Ok, but there’s someone I want you to meet. She’s interning at Alef’s office.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone,” Jan said, debating hanging up.
“It’s fucking hard for me too, Jan.” Shari said.
Jan heard her take in a deep breath and hold it. “Ok, you’re right,” he said. “What do you want for a present?”
“Your presence is enough,” Shari laughed. “A straw hat, we’re going to the beach in a week.”
Isla was looking at him with widened eyes. “It’s been a while now, yeah?” she said.
“A year, I guess.” Jan said. He pulled at his shirt again, feeling a bead of sweat trickle down his back. “Hey, do you want to go to the roof?”
She looked at him, surprised. “Sure,” she said, sliding down from the counter. “Do you feel hot in here? I think it’d be hotter outside though.”
Jan nodded and followed her as she made a winding way through the kitchen and into the living room where people were grouped in clusters on the couches and chairs. He saw Shari, sitting on the window seat with a glass of wine and her hair pulled back in a brightly colored scarf. She was talking to a bearded man who kept waving his hands around in her face like he was trying to hypnotize her or show her some elementary school magic trick.
He followed Isla out the front door and they slipped their shoes back on before climbing the stairs to the ninth floor. The roof was a flat expanse of gray squares. There was a tall safety rail that ran along the edge and an empty flower pot stood in one of the corners. Everything was still in the stagnant heat and even the traffic from Canal Street was quiet.
She sat down crosslegged on the cement and Jan sat across from her. She stretched out her hands flat on the ground and lifted her fingers like she was playing an invisible piano.
“What’s you favorite type of music?” she asked.
“Was that too much of an online dating sort of question?” she laughed and leaned forward.
Jan smiled, “a little,” he said. “And anyways I don’t have an answer.”
“Is it because you don’t like music or because you like all of it?”
“Oh,” Jan shrugged. “I like it well enough.”
They were silent again and Isla leaned back and ran one of her hands through her hair. It was such a fluid, beautiful gesture that Jan suddenly wondered if she was pretty. Yes, he decided, she was pretty in a dirty, tired way. One of those girls that looks even prettier with red lipstick.
“Do you have red lipstick?” He asked.
“Red lipstick?” she echoed, and stuck her hand into her bag. “Ah ha!” she smiled.
“Put it on,” he said. She uncapped it and traced the outline of her lips.
“You look ridiculous,” Jan said, “it’s only on the outside.”
“I think I look wonderful,” she said.
He reached out and put his hand on the back of her neck. It felt so thin and breakable. He could feel the top of her spinal cord and the clasp of her necklace. He moved his hand and tangled his fingers in the hair at the nape of her neck. She leaned closer to him, her eyes closed and her garishly painted lips parted. He felt her warm breath lightly on his cheek, smelled beer and cigarettes and sandalwood perfume.
He felt tired. In his eyes, in his arms, in his stomach.
“I think I’ll go home,” he said. “Would you like to come?” She opened her eyes.
“Where do you live?” She asked and he took his hand off her neck and rested it on her knee.
“Farther west, closer to the Westside highway.”
“Ok,” she said.
“I have a roommate,” he said.
“As long as I don’t have to sleep with him too,” she rubbed the lipstick off her mouth.
“No,” Jan stood up and helped Isla to her feet.
“Let’s say goodbye,” she said, when they started down the stairs.
“You can, I’ll get a cab.” When they got to the sixth floor she opened the door and looked at him over her shoulder. He nodded and continued down the stairs.
Jan stepped into the street and let his eyes un-focus until only bright, white headlights drove past him. A cab slowed down and beeped but he waved it on. Isla came out of the apartment building and stood next to him. She lit a cigarette. Smoke drifted into his face.
“Let’s walk,” he said suddenly.
“Not far, anyways, it’s nice out,” Jan took her hand. He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles.
As they walked Isla smoked and Jan listened to the sound of her shoes on the pavement. They passed by his old high school, hulking desolate and depressed on the corner. He paused and she stopped alongside him.
“We went to school here,” he said. And began to walk again. The sky was royal blue with grey clouds like puddles of ink and Battery Park stretched out, damp and green, in front of them.
When they got to his building, Jan let go of Isla’s hand and unlocked the front door. They trudged up three flights of stairs and he pushed his shoulder against 3E, causing the door to open with a groan. The light was on in the kitchen and Anna was digging through the fridge.
“Anna, Isla, Isla, Anna.” Jan said. “My roommate.” Isla nodded. Anna straightened up, closed the refrigerator with her foot and stuck out her hand.
Isla shook it.
“Yogurt?” Anna asked.
“No thanks,” Isla said.
“Is Tom staying over?” Jan dropped his keys onto the couch.
“Yeah,” Anna said. “But I told him he had to be out early because I have to be at the gallery.”
“Tell him not to be loud,” Jan said. “We’ll sleep late.” He took Isla’s hand and led her down the hall to the room at the end.
He closed the door behind them and Isla put her bag down on the green loveseat next to the closet.
“Bathroom,” he said.
“Ok,” Isla said and began to take her shoes off. Jan went into the bathroom and closed the door. He felt around for the switch and flinched when the overhead light buzzed on. In the mirror his face looked grey and shadowed. He peed and splashed his cheeks with cold water.
Isla had turned the lamp in the corner of his room on low and she sat on the edge of his bed in her bra and skirt. Jan could see her nipples, erect and dark, through the thin white lace. He took of his tee shirt and his jeans, leaving them in a crumpled heap in the corner, and walked over to sit next to her. She looked at him and stood up. She slowly unzipped her skirt and stepped out of it.
“Turn the lamp off,” he said, and lay back, pulling the comforter over his legs. She walked to the corner and bending over, turned it off. The only light in the room came from the city thrumming through the window. Isla slipped into bed next to him and propped herself up on her elbow.
Jan rolled over so that he faced the wall. He felt her cold hands run down his back.
“You don’t talk much,” she said, moving her hands down his stomach.
“I know,” he said, catching one of her hands in his and holding it still. He heard her lie her head down on the pillow and felt the bed shift as she stretched out. He turned over, and placed her hand at her side. He gently trailed his fingertips over her right cheekbone and eyebrow.
“I think we should sleep,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Lydia Weintraub, Age 16, Grade 11, Saint Ann’s School, Silver Key