Chapter 1. No Man’s Land
We were college graduates, blasé about it, diplomas rolled into tubes. It was 1991; a diploma couldn’t save you from having to stand behind a shop counter or sit answering a telephone at the front of some oﬃce. Saddam Hussein was back again, Yugoslavia was at war, the U.S. economy was sadly napping. With two school friends, I’d come to Manhattan straight from graduation, knowing only that I wanted to write. You could do that then, move to the city without a job or a plan, just some unreasonable dream, and survive.
We took what work we could ﬁnd. I spent the days folding sweaters at a clothing store, and Adrienne, who was going to be an actress, waited tables at a place on Mercer. The other girl took a job as a receptionist at a dental oﬃce. We had managed to ﬁnd a three-bedroom walk-up on a nondescript stretch of Lafayette that wasn’t quite SoHo and wasn’t quite Chinatown. Little Italy, too, was a block away. Exposed brick walls, two crumbling bathrooms, and an apparent mild gas leak. If there was money laundering going on, that was not our business. Our windows looked out over a cement traﬃc island that turned the street suddenly, uselessly, one-way, so that few cars ever passed. Vagrants spent long hours there in looping conversation.
He looks at me says I’m a let you go now. I’m a let you go now. Just like that.
Or maybe gone into shoe repair with my uncle. I mean, come on, it was just two times!
Tied a yellow ribbon, sure, just don’t ask what else she did.
Ancient grievances lobbed back and forth. The men never begged, or at least not from me. They probably knew I had little to oﬀer, with my crumpled paper bags from the corner deli.
The stupid hunger of college girls who never learned to cook. Macaroni from a box with its little packet of orange powder, or brittle bricks of curly noodles plunged into broth. When my shift at the clothing store ended, I’d walk home along Broadway empty-bellied, light-headed, swooning at the pungent gusts from food carts. Too-sweet gray smoke of candied almonds, or toasty pretzels covered in big square ﬂecks of salt. Once I found myself in a cheap accessories shop paying for a necklace whose red glass beads looked like cherry candy. Only when I’d left with necklace in hand did I understand that I wanted not to wear it but to eat it.
In my memory of that time I’m always famished, from fear of running out of money and from never having learned how to prepare a piece of meat. My mother had died when I was ten, and even after my father remarried we continued to just stick things in the microwave. The most I knew to do was sauté something: grayish mushrooms with a chopped onion, or a gloppy sauce of tomato paste, garlic, and water. My housemates were no better. When we grew ridiculously hungry, we went to Adrienne’s restaurant, a cheap poly-Asian place where big bowls of sticky white rice disguised how little there was of the beef we had gone there for specially. For lunch, at the deli near the store where I worked, I always ordered the liverwurst sandwich—to stave oﬀ anemia, and also because liverwurst was the cheapest item on the board.
These days, of course, no upstarts can make a go of it in that city without someone to subsidize them. But back then there was still a chance. And so we lived by the peculiar American wisdom that has it better to tough things out in a questionable rental unit and charge one’s life away on a credit card than to room at home or ask family for help.
Also, my father had oﬃcially cut me oﬀ. He was on to his third marriage by then and complained about the alimony.
Not that I expected his help. For four years on a walled campus of historic buildings near the Hudson, I had obscured the humble facts of my upbringing. The little house in Brighton, Massachusetts, with its stubby, crumbling driveway; the crappy public school; the Oldsmobile with the door rusted shut. What did it matter? Hadn’t all great Americans worked their way up the economic ladder? Now we were the ones with the menial jobs, the desperate Friday paychecks. The nightly visions of mice, of stolid cockroaches the too-quick ﬂutter of something down the tea towels.
I told myself it was just a stage. Temporary, the postdated checks, the fearful sorting of mail, envelopes with stern messages in red ink. Every once in a while, a moment of dumb luck: a twenty-dollar bill found on the sidewalk, or a trial-size sample of something handed out on a street corner. There was no shame in this. We were in a recession! Other friends worked in a bakery, a photocopying place—a chiropractor’s oﬃce! My demotion from cum laude French major to retail clerk wasn’t an insult, just something to get through. We weren’t minions; we were“assistants.” I wasn’t broke; I was trouée au coude.
This was before Giuliani blustered in and swept everything up, before frat boys from the trading ﬂoor moved into what had been rent-controlled apartments. The city was everyone’s and everyone had to deal with the grit. When you blew your nose at the end of the day, black crud came out. If a pipeline burst or some minor urban disaster took place, a long while passed before it was ﬁxed. Forty-Second Street was still triple-Xs and peep shows, and Tompkins Square Park had just been closed. Squeegee men accosting cars with slimy mops…Panhandlers, loud, on the subway cars…Some unfortunate soul waiting for you to slip your token into the turnstile, so that she could try to suck it back up from the slot with her mouth.
Which is why a person could live there on a scrap of a job and still have as good a shot at a future as anyone. This, I suppose, is what I meant today, a full twenty years later, when I told Roy there was nothing left. That city doesn’t exist anymore. Just as the girl I was no longer exists.
It’s only an hour or so ago that he called. Found me through my agent. Two decades since we last spoke, but his voice ruﬄed me just the same. A Rhode Island telephone number, as if he never left home. He told me Kyra’s missing.
That’s how he put it: “She’s gone missing. It’s been three days.”
My heart did something it hadn’t done in a long time, a sort of hiccup but sharp. I said, “You mean she’s run away?” Can a forty-something-year-old run away? Well, why not, if you’re Kyra. Mid-life crisis, probably. I had mine two years ago and nearly ended up divorced.
But I must have already sensed it was something else. Roy said no one seemed to know what had happened. “Her posting mate says she went to meet a friend.”
Posting mate. So, she’s still with that NGO. Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders… Years ago I allowed myself to look her up online, before quickly shoving her back into the locked trunk of memory. I asked Roy which ruined country she had touched down on now.
To my surprise, he seemed to think I should know. Apparently she sends out regular email broadcasts to friends. Now he was gathering any information he could get.
“I can’t help you.” I didn’t mean to sound cold. It’s just that I haven’t spoken to Kyra in twenty years.
“If you’ll kindly let me ﬁnish.” Roy said it slowly. “I’m calling because I’ve received a package from her with your name on it.”
“But—I don’t believe it.”
I heard him sigh, loudly. He explained that she had sent the package via diplomatic pouch, with a note instructing him to please make sure to get it to me. “So it seems to me she must have known she could be landing in some sort of trouble.”
Give it to me? My name on it? I asked how he even knew she was missing.
“AidNow called this morning. I’m her emergency contact. Don’t ask me why they waited three days. These nonproﬁts don’t know how to do anything.”
So, Roy hasn’t changed.
“And now this package arrived. Look, what’s your address? My secretary will have it couriered.”
Kyra, in some sort of trouble. Gone oﬀ somewhere and disappeared. Roy was still speaking, asking me to be sure to please let him know when the package arrived. “And you’ll tell me if there’s anything in it about where she might have gone, right?”
Just when you think you’ve made it through the rough part— ushered your child past so many daily perils, reconciled with your beleaguered husband—the past returns to make demands. Just when you’ve begun to believe in the possibility of a peaceful life.
Roy must have misunderstood my silence. He said, “Don’t tell me you still haven’t forgiven her.”
That confused me. For one thing, it’s not true. I love Kyra. And I’m the one to blame, not her. It made me wonder what she had told him.
He said,“It’s the past—can’t you let go of all that?”
There’s nothing left to let go of. That world is gone. Even the old apartment no longer exists. In its place is a twelve-story building of darkened glass—luxury condominiums, with a doorman and an exercise room. I’ve seen it advertised in the magazine section of the Times.
“Mim, I need your help. We’re all she has. And those AidNow people are incompetent.”
I gave him my address, though few people in the universe are allowed to know it. Let him send that package on its way to me. Kyra, missing. I keep replaying the conversation, trying to understand. I keep hearing Roy saying, I need your help.
Last we spoke, twenty years ago, it was me saying that, to him.