Gretchen didn’t know anyone at Evan’s party, and hadn’t expected to, but she’d hoped she might meet some new people, fresh friends to enliven the long winter. She searched for an amiable face in the crowd as she crabbed her way across the wide loft, encountering mouths and noses, necks and shoulders and backs, scents of perfume and stale breath. She hadn’t been to Evan’s place before and was startled by how large it was. They’d met on Tinder two weeks ago. She hadn’t spotted him here so far.
Her mother had once told her that a good way to start a conversation with a stranger was to ask him or her if they’d met, so when she reached the bar table that had been set up by the kitchen, she blindly turned to the nearest body and said, “Hello, do I know you?”
“I don’t know, do you?” said a ruddy-skinned man. He wore a chartreuse silk vest and matching bow tie. Dapper Dan, Gretchen thought. Waiting for a drink on the opposite side of him was another guy whose fine-boned face had the silken quality of Wedgewood figurine.
“Oh, maybe not,” Gretchen said, raising her voice above the din. She tried to move toward the Wedgewood guy without being obvious about it.
“I’m Bob,” the chartreuse man said. His eyes were small and watchful, the blue of the sea on a sunny day. She guessed he was in his late thirties. Older than her, anyway.
“Gretchen,” she said. She saw the Wedgewood guy pour himself a glass of wine and join two women near a potted ficus tree whose leaves were turning yellow. He, too, wore a tie, and the women wore dresses. Gretchen had one fancy outfit, a sequined sheath from a vintage store, but the sequins were falling off of it in sparkling strands, and she hadn’t been able to reattach them. The combat boots and artfully torn leggings she’d chosen to wear tonight made her feel like a disaffected teenager.
“What can I get you?” Bob said.
Someone else to talk to, she thought. “Just a beer, no glass. I’m Evan’s girlfriend, by the way.”
“Ah.” He studied her. She wondered what he thought he saw. “How long have you two been an item?” he said.
“A while,” she said as she accepted the beer.
“What’s ‘a while?’” he said.
“‘A while’ is an amount of time.”
He laughed, exposing an overbite. “You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you.”
Gretchen looked at him for a beat before saying, “I’m not anything, as far as you’re concerned. You don’t know me at all.”
He raised his hands in surrender. “I’ve been told I’m an ass.”
“And do you think you are?” she said.
“Yes, probably, but I have good qualities as well.” He glanced over her head. “I could tell you wished you were talking to that handsome guy who just walked away. I know him, I could introduce you, if you’d like. He’s gay, but that wouldn’t matter to you, since you’re involved with Evan.”
For a second, Gretchen was speechless. She was pinned where she stood by a woman on one side of her and a man on the other, both waiting to get a drink at the bar. “Touché,” she said. “So how do you know Evan?”
“We’re brothers,” he said.
“Really? You look nothing alike.”
Bob reached out and caught the arm of a passing woman whose red lipstick bled beyond the boundaries of her mouth. She looked at him as if without recognition before bestowing a slow smile. “This young lady doesn’t believe I’m Evan’s brother,” he said.
“Who else would you be?” she said, and was carried away on the current of the crowd.
“Why hasn’t Evan ever mentioned you to me?” Gretchen said.
“You’d have to ask him that,” Bob said.
“Well, I would, but I can’t find him in this mob.”
“He might not be here.”
“Of course he is, this is his party.”
Bob shrugged. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
All of a sudden she felt defeated. The party’s chaotic atmosphere had developed a sinister edge in her mind, as if a violence of some kind was bound to happen, irrevocable and dire. Evan had told her the party would be casual and small, with only close friends invited. Why had he lied? He’d made her look like a fool. She wouldn’t call him again, she thought. If he called her, she wouldn’t pick up. Their relationship didn’t amount to much, as they’d only slept together three times, but she thought she had a right to be angry. “I’m leaving now,” she said.
“Good idea,” Bob said. “I know a bar that’s a lot of fun. We could go there.”
How did I become we? she thought. “What’s so fun about it?”
“It’s called Double Happiness, in Chinatown—do you know it? It looks like it’s been dug out of a cave, and they have a flaming drink called a Dragon’s Breath. They serve dumplings and things, too, if you’re hungry.” He turned his head slightly and looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “My treat,” he said.
Gretchen was in fact very hungry, but only had six dollars, thirty-two cents, and a maxed-out credit card in her wallet. She barely made ends meet as a freelance graphic designer, a career she’d come to New York to pursue, starting as a lowly assistant at a design firm and eventually going out on her own. She was failing at it in increments. Fewer jobs came her way every year. But she had become so bored with the work that it didn’t matter to her anymore. “Sure, why not,” she said.
“Fantastic!” Bob tucked his arm into hers. She hesitated, scanning the crowd one more time for Evan. “I won’t tell Evan,” he said. “We hardly ever talk anyway.”
“Maybe that’s why he never mentioned you,” she said. But she hadn’t told him anything about her family either. They really hadn’t talked much. So far, all they’d done was meet for a quick drink somewhere and go back to her place for sex.
“He and I don’t get along very well,” Bob said. He made a boohoo face, like a clown’s.
She almost accused him of using her just to piss off his brother, but so what if he was? Double Happiness awaited.
The taxicab stopped beside a waist-high berm of gray snow pocked with yellow melts of pee. Gretchen climbed over the snow like a goat, holding her arms out for balance; Bob got out of the cab on the opposite side and made a careful detour through a clear space in the curb. He took them down an iron stairwell to an unmarked door where the odor of urine combined with disinfectant cleaner was nearly overpowering.
Inside, the place was dim, lit only by glowing candles. The walls appeared to be made of rocks—real or faux? Gretchen wondered—and the ceiling was a low, mud-colored dome. Several small tables and mismatched chairs surrounded a long chrome bar. A number of alcoves, obscured by bead curtains, appeared to have been gouged out of the facing wall. A tall Chinese man wearing a tuxedo led them to an alcove with a red, soda fountain-style booth inside that looked like a relic from the fifties. Drawings and initials and random words were carved into the Formica surface of the table. From a speaker above the bar came a woman’s voice singing a twanging, plaintive song.
Bob murmured something to the man, who nodded and disappeared. There seemed to be no one else in the place. Maybe it was an after-hours spot, Gretchen thought. It was only half past nine.
She reached out and touched the wall. It really was made of rock. “How do you know this place is called Double Happiness if there’s no sign outside?”
“I know because a friend said so,” Bob said as he shucked his wool overcoat. “It’s a phenomenon known as word of mouth.” He gave her a bright look. “So. Here we are. Tell me everything.”
“Everything about what?” she said.
“About yourself!” he said. “Let’s start with where you’re from.”
“Here,” she said. “New York.”
“No, you’re not.”
“How can you tell?”
“You have a Midwestern accent, for one thing, and you don’t look like a New Yorker. There’s something wide-eyed about you.”
“I’m not wide-eyed. I’m almost thirty.”
“No, that kind of look never goes away, even when you’re old and jaded.”
“Okay, I’m from Cleveland, but I’ve been living in the East a long time. I went to art school in Philadelphia.”
“But you’re not an artist, are you,” he said with a certainty she found annoying.
“I am, too. Sort of.” She told him what she did for a living.
“Sounds as if you hate it,” he said.
“What I hate are clients who don’t know what they want,” she said. “I show them designs and they don’t like any of them, but they can’t ever tell me what they do want. It’s infuriating.”
“Most people don’t know what they want.”
“I know what I want.”
“Oh, yes? What do you want?”
She traced the marks on the table with her finger. “To be happy.”
“That’s too generic. Everyone wants to be happy, or so they say. What, specifically, do you want?”
There were so many things she wanted but couldn’t have that she had to take a minute to search the inventory stacked up in her mind. “I want a leather jacket I saw in a boutique in the Village.”
He shook his head. “Objects don’t count, particularly clothes. I’m talking about things like wanting to be a doctor, or wanting to live abroad, wanting to build a house with your own hands.”
“Build a house with your own hands?”
“I had an uncle who talked about doing that. Sadly, he never did.”
“So, what do you want?” she said.
“I’m not going to tell you until you tell me.”
She regarded him through narrowed eyes. “Maybe it’s none of your business.”
“Meaning you don’t know,” he said. “I have a friend who tells fortunes. She’s scarily accurate. You don’t have to know what you want; she tells you what you’ll get.”
The bead curtain parted with a muted clatter. The Chinese man put a wide-bowled, long-stemmed glass on the table and produced a sparkler from his breast pocket. He lit the sparkler and touched it to the pink liquid in the glass. The surface of the liquid flickered yellow before the flame gathered momentum and flared. Even as she leaned away, Gretchen could feel its warmth.
The flame died as quickly as it had come to life. The man handed them long plastic straws and disappeared once more. Gretchen dipped her straw into the drink. It tasted like raspberries and lemonade.
“Oh, it’s cold! I didn’t expect that. Delicious, what’s in it?”
“Cointreau? Vermouth? Lighter fluid?” Bob said. “Some things should remain a mystery.”
Again, the bead curtain parted. The man put a bamboo dumpling steamer on the table and gave them each a small bowl of noodles. Hungrily, Gretchen dug in with a pair of chopsticks, holding the bowl up to her chin. Bob toyed with his food, sucking up noodles one by one. When Gretchen’s bowl was empty, she took a draw of the Flaming Dragon. She smiled at Bob. “Good stuff. Packs a punch.”
“I knew you’d like it here,” he said. “Not everybody does.”
“No, I can imagine, it’s not exactly the Plaza. Anyway, we just met, so how could you have known what I’d like?” She was hoping he’d say something complimentary. She couldn’t remember the last compliment she’d received. She wanted to be told she was special in some way by a man other than her father, who had believed since her birth that she would conquer the world and refused against all evidence to be convinced otherwise. Bob asked her questions, at least. Most men only wanted to talk about themselves. She checked her phone. There were three texts from Evan: where r u, where r u, and an angry face emoji. The first text had come in an hour and a half ago, the emoji in the past three minutes. Oh, fuck off, she thought as she put the phone back in her purse.
The man brought another Flaming Dragon just as Bob finished the dregs of the first one. Again, the flame whooshed up.
“It’s less exciting the second time,” Bob said. “But the third time is absolutely thrilling.”
Gretchen felt the familiar elation, bright and crisp, that preceded the slide into drunkenness. She took the lid off the steamer and maneuvered her chopsticks around a dumpling. “I like you,” she said. “You’re nothing like Evan.”
“You didn’t like me at first,” Bob said.
“I can’t remember if I did or not. That was a long time ago.”
Bob checked his watch, a thin gold disk fastened around his wrist by an alligator band. “Oh, yes, ages ago. But the night is still young. What shall we do next?”
She took a long sip and left a swallow in the glass. “I’m not sleeping with you.”
“No, of course not. I wouldn’t presume. I have a girlfriend, anyway. Anemone Villeneuve. She lives in Far Rockaway, in a house on the beach. She’s visiting her aunt in St. Lucia for the week, or she would be sitting where you are right now.”
“I don’t believe a word of what you just said. Anemone Villeneuve. What a preposterous name.”
“Jean Smith, then.”
“Too plain. How about Maya? I’ve always liked that name.”
“Maya Fiorello,” he said. “Italian on her father’s side, Mexican on her mother’s.”
“She sounds nice,” Gretchen said. “I hope you’ll be very happy.”
“Hey, there’s a stand of Citi Bikes a block away,” he said. “Let’s get a couple of them and ride over to my friend’s, have our fortunes told.”
“It’s like two degrees outside,” she said.
“Oh, don’t be a sissy,” he said.
“Okay, but can we have another Flaming Dragon first?”
As if he’d heard her, the man reappeared.
“Woo hoo!” Gretchen said as the drink flickered, then flared.
She hadn’t ridden a bike since she was a teenager and felt wobbly on it at first, but after a couple of blocks she found her bearings and cruised along behind Bob through the deserted streets of the Lower East Side. Metal shutters had been pulled down over the shops, though the windows of the apartments above them were bright. She had lived in New York for almost eight years, yet she was unfamiliar with this part of town. They passed fabric stores and lighting wholesalers, a small museum devoted to the history of tenements; every now and then she caught sight of a bridge, either the Williamsburg or Manhattan, she didn’t know which. The streetlights seemed dimmer than they were uptown, the darkness between them deeper. A rat scurried in front of her bike, so big she mistook it for a cat.
“I’m freezing!” she shouted.
“I know!” Bob said. “Isn’t it great?” He took his hands off the handlebars and crossed his arms over his chest. The end of his scarf fluttered over his shoulder. He looked like a boy showing off. Then he grabbed the handlebars again and pedaled standing up. Gretchen breathed heavily as she tried to keep pace, sweating inside her parka. Finally, he pulled up in front of a narrow brownstone and took his phone out of his coat pocket. “It’s me!” he said in a delighted voice. “Yes, right downstairs.”
A window three flights up slid open. “Hiya!” said the silhouette of a woman’s head as a tin can on a string descended. Bob caught the can and fished out a key. Gretchen followed him up a flight of steps and waited for him to open the building’s door. The foyer was lit by a flickering fluorescent tube, but the stairway was almost too dim to see. She hung onto the banister, watching her step as she went. The key in the tin can business had seemed like something out of an old movie. She lived in a building where you buzzed people in.
“Maybe I’ll go,” she said. She turned around but was afraid to walk down alone.
“No!” Bob said. “This is the best part.”
“The best part of what?” she said.
A woman leaned over the banister above them. When they reached the landing, Bob said, “Elaine, meet Gretchen. Gretchen, Elaine. Elaine is one of my oldest friends.” Elaine was very fat. Her flossy platinum hair framed her face like a cloud. She wore an orange terry cloth bathrobe and a pair of cheap terry scuffs.
“Welcome,” she said with a regal sweep of her hand. Coming in from the dark landing, Gretchen squinted against the yellow light cast by a globe-shaped ceiling fixture. The furniture, what little there was, looked as if each piece had originated from a different house. “You sit there,” Elaine told her, indicating a red leather ottoman. “You,” she pointed at Bob, “can sit anywhere you like.” She waddled over to a kitchenette and busied herself with something. Gretchen could hear her humming. She returned a minute later with a demitasse of coffee held on the flat of her hand. She offered the coffee to Gretchen. Puzzled, Gretchen took a sip. The cup was only half full, and the coffee was lukewarm and bitter. Elaine took the cup from her and turned it over onto a handkerchief in a saucer. The remainder of the coffee seeped through the fibers of the white fabric, staining it brown to its edges. She sat down on a filthy chintz-covered chair, turned the cup upright and peered inside it.
“What are you doing?” Gretchen said. Everything about being here was too weird to be fun. She wished she hadn’t agreed to come.
“I’m studying your grounds,” Elaine said. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Bob stood at the window, spying on the people in the apartment across the street. He turned and said, “Elaine is a psychic, I told you that. She reads coffee grounds.”
“I’ve never met a psychic,” Gretchen said. “How do I know you’re real?”
“I’m sitting here in front of you,” Elaine said with a laugh. “How much more real do you want?”
“I mean a real psychic,” Gretchen said.
“That you can’t know,” Elaine said. She gazed inside the cup.
Gretchen was fascinated by Elaine’s lack of vanity, the way she sat like a Sumo wrestler with her gigantic legs spread, the crotch of her white underpants displayed. There was a full-length mirror on the wall by the door. Did she check her reflection before she went out? How much would a person have to eat to get so fat?
“Ah hah,” Elaine said. “I see a man with a mustache. He’s all right, but you’ve had a misunderstanding. A missed connection. He likes you more than you think.” Gretchen frowned. Evan had a mustache, but so did a lot of men. “You won’t be here much longer,” Elaine went on. “I’d say less than a year.”
Gretchen gasped. “Why? What’s wrong with me?”
Elaine looked up. “Nothing’s wrong with you. I mean you won’t be in New York much longer.”
“Where will I be?”
Elaine shrugged. “Somewhere you’ve lived before.”
“I don’t believe you,” Gretchen said.
“Suit yourself,” Elaine said. “So, the mustache guy. You’ve misjudged him. No, not him, exactly, but something around him.”
“Why do you keep talking about him?” Gretchen said.
“I don’t know,” Elaine said. “I’m only reading what I see. Home! You’ll be going home.”
“No way,” Gretchen said. She put her hands over her ears.
Elaine looked at Bob. “You’ve brought me a doubter.”
Gretchen felt her face go hot but resisted the urge to cry. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother doing laundry in the laundry nook at home—efficiently separating the lights from the darks, measuring out fabric softener—then saw herself dragging a bag of dirty clothes down to her building’s basement laundry room only to find that the machines were out of order, or she didn’t have the right change, or she’d forgotten the detergent. She could easily get work in Cleveland. She’d have the élan of coming from New York. Whenever she went home for a visit, her high school friends treated her like a celebrity.
“I don’t know what I want,” she wailed. “I used to know, but it didn’t work out. Why doesn’t anything fucking work out?” She had at one time imagined herself as the owner of a successful design studio. She would have worn dramatic eye makeup and mannish black clothes and had a “partner” rather than a husband, because being married would have been one of the many conventions she would have thrown off like an unfashionable coat. Her fantasy even extended to what breed of dog she would have: an Italian Greyhound, delicate and sleek, outfitted with a silver collar. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Evan has a mustache. Do you think I’m meant to be with him?”
“Hard to say,” Elaine said. “It might be too late.”
Bob sat on the couch and rested his elbows on his knees. His dust-colored hair had been flattened against his head by his cap. “Gretchen, listen to me. Evan wasn’t at the party tonight because he didn’t give the party. It was given by a friend of mine.”
“But why would Evan say it was his party?” Gretchen said.
“He didn’t,” Bob said. “You went to the wrong party.”
Gretchen attempted to absorb this. “That sounds like a riddle. But where is Evan?”
“Presumably at his place, wondering where you are,” Bob said. “Give me your phone. Do you have his address in there?”
“Why would you need his address?” Gretchen said as she handed over her phone. “I don’t understand at all.”
“Here it is,” Bob said after scrolling through her contacts. “The party you went to was at 420 West Broadway. Evan’s address is 420 East Broadway.”
“Fourth floor,” Gretchen said.
“Yes,” Bob said. “But the wrong address. Do you understand what I’m saying? Why don’t we go there now.”
“What are the odds of that happening?” Elaine said. “What are you up to, Bob? This poor girl is too drunk for your shenanigans.”
“But you and Evan don’t get along,” Gretchen said. “I don’t want to be involved.”
Bob bit his lip. Elaine examined her fingernails, which were a rich vermillion and unusually long.
“Gretchen, I’m not really Evan’s brother. I only said I was, I don’t know why. It seemed funny at the time. I’ve never met the guy.”
“Ha ha, sure,” Gretchen said. She looked at Elaine. “No, wait, seriously?”
Bob took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Thanks, Elaine,” he said.
Elaine heaved herself out of her chair. “Yeah, okay. Bring someone sober next time.”
Leaving the Citi Bikes in Elaine’s foyer, Bob hailed a cab on Delancey, where the traffic whizzed back and forth on two lanes. “Call Evan,” he said, handing Gretchen her phone.
“I think I need to throw up,” she said.
Bob rolled down her window. “Do it out there, if you have to,” he said. “But for God’s sake keep quiet or the cabby will kick us out.” He took her phone and tapped Evan’s number, then handed the phone back to her.
She frowned. “Says the voice mailbox is full.”
“Fine, we’re almost there anyway.”
“Why does this cab smell like bubble gum?” she said. “Hey, do you like me, Bob? Can we be an item?” She leaned into him and put her head on his shoulder.
“Why not,” he said in tired voice. “But let’s find Evan first. Right here is fine,” he told the driver. “You can leave us at the corner.” He handed the driver a twenty, and hustled Gretchen out of the car.
“But if we’re an item, I don’t need Evan,” she said. “I don’t care about him anymore.”
“Then you should tell him that,” Bob said. He took her arm and began walking. The street was dark and deserted except for a cafe at the end of the block. Far beyond, the lights of uptown cast a halo in the sky. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have lied to you.”
“Why did you?” Gretchen said.
“Because I’m an ass,” he said. “I told you that.”
“Listen, why haven’t you said anything nice to me? You haven’t said one nice thing.” She stumbled on a break in the sidewalk. “Stop, you’re going too fast.”
He stopped. “What nice thing do you want to hear?”
Every nice thing, she thought. An avalanche of compliments. “Obviously if I tell you it doesn’t count.”
After a moment’s thought, he said, “You’re a good sport.”
“Are you kidding me? You can lie your head off about everything, but you can’t bring yourself to give me a better compliment than that? I don’t think you’re so great either.”
She pushed his gloved hand off her arm and walked away without him. The neighborhood was many blocks from her own, in a corner of the city she’d never known, but she knew she would recognize something eventually, a street or a building: a landmark.
Louise Marburg is the author of two collections of stories
No Diving Allowed (Regal House Publishing, 2021), and The Truth About Me (WTAW Press, 2017), which was named by the San Francisco Chronicle and Entropy as a best book of 2017. Winner of the Independent Press Book Award for the short story, The Truth About Me was also shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her stories have appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, STORY, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her husband, the artist Charles Marburg. ,