When Emily Wong moved to Manhattan from Poughkeepsie, she started to freak out on elevators. It began at Saks Fifth Avenue. She took the elevator to the seventh floor to look for a crystal bowl for a wedding gift. More and more people got into the elevator and Emily was forced to move to the back of the car. She suddenly felt her heart racing and imagined the elevator would stop moving and she would be stuck in the enclosed space with all these people for hours. When she finally got out on the seventh floor, her whole body was shaking.
Emily started avoiding elevators. When she went to department stores, she rode the escalators. Of course, she sometimes worried that the escalator would stop suddenly before she got to the top and the other people ahead of her would fall back on top of her, maybe even injuring her for life. But she only had negative thoughts about escalators now and then, so she kept on taking them. Luckily she lived on the third floor of her apartment building, so it wasn’t hard to walk up the stairs to her studio apartment instead of taking the elevator.
Emily hated riding the subway even more than getting on elevators. As soon as she entered a subway car and the doors closed behind her, she was gripped with the fear that the train would screech to a halt, the lights would go out, and she and the other passengers wouldn’t be able to escape. She became especially anxious when she was packed in a full car of people during rush hour. She imagined being squeezed to death on all sides by disgruntled New Yorkers when the train came to a halt, most likely on a hot summer day. The air conditioning would go off, the bodies around her would start sweating profusely, and she would eventually die from suffocation amid hostile strangers.
One weekend in September Emily rode in a minivan with coworkers from her office. She worked as the events page editor at the magazine NYC All Over, where the arts critic had recommended a show called “Painting Nudes” at the Brooklyn Museum. They drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, but the traffic was awful. Their minivan was forced to a standstill. They were stuck between two large Home Depot delivery trucks.
“What a drag,” Miguel said from behind the steering wheel. “My first trip outside of Manhattan and we can’t even get there.” He had just moved from San Jose three months before. He was a playwright who did some copyediting for the magazine. He was also one of the few people who drove in the office, unlike some of the New York natives.
“I told you we should have taken the subway,” Lisa said. Lisa was the magazine’s food critic. “Cars should be banned from New York.”
Emily didn’t say anything. She was hoping her fellow passengers didn’t see the beads of sweat forming on her remarkably angular cheekbones. She could not stand being stuck in traffic. She wanted to jump out of the car.
“Would someone open a window?” Emily finally said softly. “I feel like I’m going to faint.”
“You do look pale,” said Eric, who worked in accounting. His voice was surprisingly deep. Emily had never heard it before.
“Have you been eating enough?” Lisa asked. “I need to take you out for a meal.”
“I think I need to see a shrink,” Emily said.
“Don’t we all,” Lisa said. She opened a box of mints and offered one to Emily as the traffic started to move.
That evening Emily called her friend Robbie, who taught at an alternative school in Park Slope. She and Robbie had gone to high school together in Poughkeepsie.
“Well, it certainly took you long enough,” he said. “Did you get my e-mail about going to the San Gennaro Festival?”
“I’m sorry, I got distracted at work,” she said. “I’ll be glad to go. But I’m calling to ask if you know anyone who could recommend a therapist.”
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Sure, but I want to talk to someone about my thing with elevators,” she said.
“Good idea,” he said. “Let me ask around.”
The next day Robbie called her back. His brother the doctor recommended a woman who worked downtown.
Emily went to see Dianna Macavoi, whose office was in the East Village on a street full of clothing boutiques. Dianna worked as a counselor in a community clinic that catered to Eastern European immigrants so her rates were low. She dressed as if she were planning to go out for a night on the town. She was a trained therapist but did not like to be called “doctor.”
At their first meeting, Dianna wore a leopard skin hat and a clinging black dress that showed off her voluptuous figure.
“So tell me, Emily,” she said. “What’s been bothering you?”
“I can’t stand being in closed spaces,” Emily said. “And New York is full of them. Even before I get close to a subway entrance, my palms start to sweat.”
Dianna poured a glass of water and offered it to Emily who refused.
“Have you had this fear a long time?” she asked.
“Only since I moved to New York,” Emily said.
After a few visits, Dianna told Emily that she suffered from claustrophobia. She could be helped through behavioral therapy and some meditative exercises.
“But I also want to recommend a medication called Elevor,” Dianna said.
“I’d rather not,” Emily said.
“I’m only advising you to take it for a short time. I think it will help calm your nerves.”
Emily went to one of the local pharmacies that seemed to be sprouting on every other block and got a bottle of 30 Elevor pills. They were bright pink and each was the size of a pea. After two weeks she found herself singing “The Sound of Music” in the shower. Emily didn’t even know she knew any show tunes, especially about larks who were learning to pray.
At the office Emily found she was able to get her work done twice as fast. She was able to take lunch breaks and relax. She stopped smoking.
“You want to go out for drinks after work?” Miguel asked one afternoon. “A bunch of us want to try that new Mexican place Chihuahua.”
“The one Lisa hates?” Emily asked.
“Lisa may be the food queen, but she knows nothing about good Mexican food,” Miguel said.
Normally Emily would have gone home to watch reruns of The Gilmore Girls on television. She always wanted a mother-daughter relationship like the one portrayed on the show, full of witty repartee and understanding. But she saw no reason not to go out.
“Sure, I’ll tag along,” Emily said. “Have you been working out? You look great.”
Emily hadn’t noticed before how tight Miguel’s T-shirts were. She had the urge to squeeze his biceps and had to stop herself.
“I go swimming five times a week,” he said. “Do you swim?”
“I never really learned,” Emily said. She didn’t even have a bathing suit.
“I could teach you,” Miguel said.
Anything to see you with your shirt off, Emily thought as she watched him walk away. What was she thinking? Miguel was definitely not her type. She usually liked more scruffy guys. Was it the Elevor she was taking? She needed to ask Dianna the next time they talked.
The following Saturday, Emily took a cab downtown to Little Italy. The streets were crowded, full of food vendors, church-related amusements like bingo and Bible Jeopardy, and stalls selling everything from leather goods to pottery imported from Italy. She could see Robbie from a block away, standing in front of Morricone’s Pastries on Grand Street, where they had agreed to meet. Robbie was six foot three and had long curly black hair, topped by a dark purple and green cap from his travels in Tibet. He was hard to miss in a crowd.
“I’m thirsty,” Robbie said. “Let’s get something to drink.”
Then they came upon a stall with a sign that read “Marco’s Marvelous Ice.”
Robbie didn’t hesitate after reading the list of choices.
“I’ll have cranberry,” he ordered from a young auburn-haired woman who looked like she barely ate.
“And you?” the emaciated woman asked.
“I haven’t a clue,” Emily said. “What do you recommend?’
“How about trying our blue ice?” she said. “I guarantee it will refresh you.”
She handed Emily a cup of ice that was closer to the color of turquoise.
“What’s this made of?” Emily asked.
“All natural flavors,” the woman said.
Emily tasted the blue ice, which was colder than she could have imagined. Her body startled to tingle in a strange way, as if she had been struck by lightning.
“Robbie, you have to try this,” she said. She held out the ice to him.
He took a lick of her blue ice.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Weird,” he said. “My tongue feels like it’s vibrating. And my hands are shaking.”
Emily grabbed his right hand, which was hot, and she suddenly didn’t want to let go. She placed it against her cheek.
“That feels so good,” she said.
Robbie turned to the skinny ice vendor.
“Have you tried this ice?” he asked. “Because it’s making us high.”
“It’s a family recipe,” she said. “It’s meant to refresh, that’s all.”
“I want to kiss you,” he said.
“Don’t be fresh,” the woman said. “Or I’ll call the cops.”
Emily had some more of the blue ice and started to lick Robbie’s fingers.
“I think we need to get some coffee,” Robbie said, taking his hand away.
When Emily got home that evening, the phone was ringing as she entered the door. Her mother was calling from Poughkeepsie.
“I was just talking to your Aunt Pearl,” her mother said. “She mentioned she hasn’t seen you in months.”
Emily slipped off her shoes and plopped on the sofa.
“I‘ll call her, I promise,” Emily said. “But how are you doing?”
“Busy,” her mother said. “And tired. My students this semester are pretty demanding.”
“Any budding Tolstoys?” Emily asked.
“None as talented as you,” she answered. She was quiet for a few seconds. “I dreamed about your father last night. He was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of crispy noodles. But when I sat down to join him, he was gone. There was only the empty bowl.”
“Well, that’s just like him, isn’t it?”
Her dad had left them ten years ago and they never heard from him again.
“Did you go see that therapist?” her mother asked.
Emily grabbed the wool blanket on the edge of the sofa and wrapped it around her.
“I like her, she’s been helpful.”
“That’s good,” her mother said. “But you should go see Aunt Pearl. She can help you, too.”
The next day Emily woke up early to the sun streaming through the rice paper shades in her bedroom. She had a quick breakfast and then walked downtown to Columbus Park in Chinatown. She found her Aunt Pearl finishing her T’ai Chi class in a corner of the park, not far from the children’s playground.
“Emi,” her aunt called to her after she had finished her final stretch.
No one else calls me that, she thought.
They sat down on a bench underneath a maple tree. Her aunt wore an evergreen silk jacket that she had owned for years. Her black hair was streaked with gray but she still looked much younger than her age. She opened a wicker basket and took out a thermos and two royal blue porcelain cups, which she filled with jasmine tea. She handed Emily a cup.
“This tastes so good,” Emily said. “What have you added?”
“My secret ingredient to calm the soul.”
Her aunt took her hand and looked at her palm.
“I see something good happening by the end of year,” she said. “You may think it’s something bad, but it’s something good.”
Her aunt gave her an almond cookie.
“I haven’t had one in so long,” Emily said, taking a bite. Her aunt made the best almond cookies in the world. “I once wrote a story about a girl who ate almond cookies to make herself invisible.”
“I remember that story,” her aunt said. “You need to write a new one.”
Then her aunt took a rectangular red silk purse from her basket and handed it to her.
“I’ve been wanting to give this to you but I keep forgetting,” she said. “Look inside.”
Emily opened the purse and took out a pair of golden scissors.
“They belonged to your great grandmother Mei-lan,” her aunt said. “They were precious to her, and she always had her hair cut by them after she turned twenty-five. You can use them to cut hair, too, but you need to be careful. If you use them on someone you no longer love, you will bring them bad luck.”
The golden scissors looked brand new.
“Why are you giving to them to me now?”
“It’s always good luck to have something around you from your ancestors,” she said.
They left the park and Emily walked her aunt to the curio shop on Pell Street where she worked part-time.
“I’m still not comfortable taking the subway,” Emily said. “But I’m less anxious now.”
“You won’t always feel this way, Emi, ” her aunt said. “You should come do T’ai Chi sometime.”
As they said goodbye, her aunt kissed her on both cheeks and on her forehead.
The following Monday, Emily opened an e-mail from an NYC All Over reader who recommended a store in the West Village.
It has been a year since my dear Auguste the snow leopard passed away. Not only was Auguste beautiful, he was extremely talented and bright. He prepared his own gourmet meals. He was also an agile dancer and choreographer. Known for his amazing leaps, he was greeted with unanimous critical acclaim when he performed with the Mark Morris Dance Troupe in Brooklyn. I found him at The Sophisticated Pet nine years ago, and he lived up to all the salesperson’s hype. I thought Auguste would live forever, but of course, nothing is forever. I still miss him waking me up in the morning with his silky white paw.”
Emily thought the letter was a prank but she was intrigued. She showed the letter to the editor of the shopping page, who asked her to check out the store.
When Emily arrived at The Sophisticated Pet, she saw a tasteful sign that said “Special Sale” on the front door. She could see that the store was crowded from the outside. At first she considered coming back later when perhaps fewer people were around. But Dianna Macavoi had encouraged her to take a deep breath and deal with crowds, even when it made her feel uncomfortable.
“I’m so glad to see you again,” said a bald man wearing a white suit when she entered the store.
“I’ve never been here before,” Emily said.
“I’m Marcello Magnini, the owner,” he said. “You look familiar. Perhaps I dreamed about you.”
Emily smiled. “A pleasant dream, I hope.”
“I’m sure you will find a new friend today,” he said. “Have you any particular animal in mind?”
“Not really. I haven’t had a pet since I was eight years old. I had a canary named Sam but he flew away.”
“Well, just take your time,” he said. “You don’t have to make a decision today. The sale lasts for a week.”
Emily began looking in the Violet Room. Marcello’s store had rooms of all different colors. She wondered if there was a reason why one animal was in one room or another. Yet the owner appeared to follow some kind of ingenious plan because all the pets for sale seemed comfortable and content in their surroundings.
A crowd had gathered around a zebra named Stella in one corner of the room. Stella was looking at a book and appeared to be reading intently.
“She’s reading the complete works of Dickens,” said a pale tall woman wearing a red sari. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, too. She’s in the middle of Bleak House right now. Maybe she’s the pet for me.”
“She’s currently being considered for a spot on the Today Show,” said a young man with a rose tattoo on his tanned left arm. “If that happens, none of us will be able to afford her. I wouldn’t wait too long to decide if you’d like her in your home.”
“So what’s stopping you from buying her?” Emily asked.
“I’ve never been a Dickens fan so I’m not sure our reading tastes are compatible,” he said.
Emily left the Violet Room and entered the Green Room, where she saw a llama wearing a straw brimmed hat and looking out the window. As she walked closer to the animal, she heard it humming softly, a lovely melody she hadn’t heard before.
“My name is Luisa,” the llama said.
Emily looked around the room for wires or a hidden speaker that was playing the animal’s voice.
“I used to live in the Napa Valley but my owner died in a skiing accident,” the llama said. “He was a wonderful man but much too impulsive.”
Emily thought it must be a side effect of Elevor. She started to leave the room.
“Oh, please don’t leave just yet,” the llama pleaded. “Stay and talk to me.”
Emily closed her eyes but when she opened them, the llama was still there.
“How did you come to New York?” Emily asked.
“Marcello knows my owner’s parents, and he said he would help them find me a new home. They travel too much to have a pet year round.”
“You have a pretty voice,” Emily said.
“Thank you,” Luisa said. “My mother used to sing to me as a child and taught me a lot of songs my grandmother sang to her before she went to sleep.”
“I’m sorry, I do have to leave,” Emily said.
She saw Marcello Magnini at the front door.
“Did I just hear the llama talk in the Green Room?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Why do you think I call my store The Sophisticated Pet?”
The next day Emily woke up with a pain in the side of her left arm. She had felt the pain before but today it was worse. She planned to call a chiropractor. At her next visit to Dianna Macavoi, she asked her to recommend one.
“Sure I can,” Dianna said. “But have you thought about getting some massage therapy?”
Emily felt immediate apprehension. Massage meant a stranger’s hands on her body. Maybe even her half-naked body. She shuddered at the thought.
“I don’t think massage is such a good idea,” she said. “The idea of someone I don’t know touching my skin makes me nervous.”
Dianna took out a yellow pad and started writing.
“You’ve never mentioned this before,” Dianna said. “This could be related to your claustrophobia.”
“Also my older brother had massage done once and it only made matters worse.”
“How so?” Dianna asked.
“He went to a Norwegian woman named Liv for a pain in his neck and for two days afterwards, he was confined to his bed, she had pummeled his body so hard. He should have sued her.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Dianna said. “I’m sure you’ll have a much better experience with the group I’m sending you to. I’ve even used them myself and I’ve had nothing but positive results.”
Dianna opened her elegant black satin purse with a silver clasp, took out a card, and handed it to Emily.
“I can’t wait to try them again,” Dianna said. “After my last visit, I’ve never slept better in my life. My dreams have been fabulous. Last night I dreamed I kissed a tiger.”
Emily wasn’t sure she liked the idea of kissing wild animals. She looked at the card and read:
10 Minetta Lane
WE FEEL YOUR PAIN
“Ask for Nicole or Gabriel,” Dianna said. “But I’m sure you’ll be fine with anyone. Let me know how it goes.”
Emily didn’t call Helping Hands right away. She took some Tylenol for a few days. But after a trip to the supermarket a week following her visit to Dianna, she could barely carry the groceries from the store to her apartment, her left arm hurt her so much.
The next day she made an appointment with Helping Hands.
“Nicole is away on a safari,” a soft-spoken woman said over the phone. “But Gabriel is available Friday afternoon. Make sure you wear comfortable clothes.”
Helping Hands was in an area of the West Village Emily hadn’t explored. She walked down a shady street lined with maple trees. She saw a sign with two large H’s painted in red in front of a blue frame, three-story house. She rang the bell for Helping Hands, and after she talked to someone through an intercom, a buzzer opened the front door.
The soft-spoken woman who had made her appointment greeted Emily at the top of the staircase and directed her to a room on the second floor. She wore a round button that said “Pamela” on her blouse. The white linen shades covering the window of the room were drawn, but sunlight penetrated through the shades easily so the space was fairly bright. As Pamela had suggested, Emily folded up her outer garments neatly and placed them on a cherry wood table against one wall. Soft guitar music began to play from the speakers suspended from the ceiling as she lay down in her underwear on the cushioned massage table, which was covered with turquoise sheets decorated with a pattern of suns and moons. She placed a matching sheet over her body.
A few minutes later, she heard a knock on the door.
“Are you ready?” a melodious male voice said from behind the door.
“I guess so,” Emily answered.
Gabriel was tall and skinny with long, wavy copper-colored hair tied in a ponytail. He wore long white linen pants, tan sandals, and a tight-fitting white T-shirt that showed off his finely toned arms.
“How may I help you today?” he asked.
Emily told him about her recurrent pain.
“Dianna recommended you highly,” she added.
“Ah, Dianna,” Gabriel said. “She is a free spirit. Very relaxed with her body. And very imaginative. She should be an artist, not work in an office.”
“I wouldn’t know, really,” Emily said. “But she does have a lot of energy.”
Gabriel pressed his fingers gently on various places on her left arm and then bent and stretched her arm at the elbow.
“Does that hurt?” he said.
“Yes, a little,” she said. “My elbow hurts the most when I type at the office.”
“I want you to relax,” he said. “I’m going to cover your eyes with this light eye mask.”
The mask was actually a small pillow that just covered her eyes. It was soft and soothing against her eyelids. She could hear Gabriel squirting lotion from a bottle into his hands. She felt his fingers rubbing vigorously against the tops of both her shoulders. He lifted both her arms to stretch them out, and then worked his fingers from her left shoulder down her arm to the elbow and then to the fingertips. He pressed hard against the knuckles of both hands and she found her body start to tingle.
Gabriel moved down to her lower body. He kneaded the inside of her legs. Emily could smell the lotion, a combination of lemon and lavender scents, though she wasn’t quite sure. As he continued to rub the skin above her knees, she felt his fingers growing warmer, then hotter.
“Emily,” he said. “That’s such a lovely name. You were very tense when we started to talk but now you are beginning to soften. Imagine you are floating on a warm body of water and the sunlight is penetrating your soul until your whole being is illuminated.”
Gabriel’s fingers moved down to her feet. He rubbed her soles quickly with the palms of his hands and she suddenly felt they were on fire. Then he caressed the skin around her ankles. She thought she felt him licking her ankles, kissing the bottom of her feet, and nibbling on her toes.
Within a split second, or so it seemed, his quick fingers had moved to the upper part of her body, caressing her neck and the sides of her face. She thought she felt his tongue licking her right earlobe and then her cheeks.
Emily wondered if the licking and kissing were usually part of the massage but she didn’t want Gabriel to stop. She no longer felt the pain in her arm and soon fell asleep.
A few minutes later she opened her eyes. The mask on her eyes had been removed. Gabriel was sitting on a black rocking chair in the corner of the room.
“How does your arm feel?” he asked.
She lifted her arm and moved it around. “It feels great.”
“Good,” he said. “When I first touched you, I wasn’t sure I would be able to help you, you were so aloof. But the mask helped, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “That and your lips kissing my feet.”
“You have a wild imagination, Emily. You might have dozed off for a bit.”
He stood up, placed his palms together, bowed, and left the room.
Emily didn’t want to get dressed. She just wanted to lie there for hours in her underwear, imagining Gabriel’s nimble hands against her skin.
Shortly after her visit to Helping Hands, Emily discovered that her friends started confiding in her about their relationships. She didn’t ask to be their confidant. She didn’t really want to hear about their intimate lives but she also didn’t know how to stop them from talking. In fact, after listening to them, she decided to take a vow of celibacy. She spent most of her free time meditating and praying to be one with the universe. She cherished her time alone.
Emily became walking buddies with Lisa, the food critic at the magazine. They walked along the promenade along the Hudson River, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and took hikes outside of the city, anywhere to keep their legs in motion. One day they walked around the reservoir in Central Park. During the walk, Lisa told her she had been dating a chef named Antoine for over a month. Antoine worked at No Place Like Home. He cooked with organic ingredients, and his meals emphasized healthy eating without sacrificing good taste. Sometimes when they made love, Lisa covered her body with fresh peaches and strawberries so that Antoine could devour the fruit and juices that drenched her skin.
“There’s one problem with our relationship,” Lisa said. “Antoine won’t cook a meal for me. He doesn’t want me to be another customer. I said to him: ‘How can I be a customer if I don’t pay you?’”
Lisa pleaded with him to cook her a four-star meal. She had read the major restaurant critics praising his work, and she longed to taste his pomegranate quail, his tangerine-asparagus ravioli, his chestnut-shitake mushroom-kiwi Chilean sea bass. She had threatened to stop sleeping with him if he didn’t cook her a meal, to no avail.
“What should I do?” she asked. “Should I stop seeing him? Am I being unreasonable?”
“I need to think about it,” Emily said.
Then Emily had a drink with Miguel, the first time they had gotten together since they had Mexican food together. Miguel told her that he had met a guy named Ben at a movie theater, and they were pretty compatible. Ben was a film editor, and a good one at that. His films won awards at festivals. Ben had recently got Miguel a walk-on part in an indie movie, and it could lead to other parts.
But there was one thing about Ben he didn’t like. He had a thing for feathers when they made love. There was nothing particularly creepy about Ben’s obsession, but Miguel found the feather thing incredibly lame.
Sometimes Ben would insist on wearing a feather headdress when they kissed or he would ask Miguel to take off his shirt and wrap himself in a rose-colored feather boa. Sometimes he liked to stroke Miguel’s naked body with an ostrich feather.
“I admit that turns me on,” Miguel said.
But one time Ben came home with goose-feathered boxer briefs and when he put them on, Miguel couldn’t help laughing, which hurt Ben’s feelings.
“I guess there are worse things than feathers,” Miguel said. “But I’d like him to try something else. What should I do?”
“I’m the last person you should ask,” she said. “Maybe you should talk to my therapist.”
“Maybe I will,” he said. “Are you going to that party after the film next week?”
“You know I don’t like crowds,” she said. Emily finished her tangerine martini and began to feel a buzz.
“How are you going to meet anyone if you don’t go out?”
Miguel looked at the check and paid for their drinks.
“Who said I wanted to meet someone?” she said.
Miguel touched her hand. “I’ll expect to see you there.”
A week after she had seen Miguel, Emily entered the dimly lit Three Dog Night on University Avenue on Saturday afternoon and sat down at a corner table decorated with a vase of yellow roses. She dipped her chocolate biscotti into her cup of decaf soy latte, took a bite, and then sipped what turned out to be the best coffee she had ever tasted in her life. She had never been to this place before and wondered why she had never heard of it from her friends.
“Do you mind if I join you?” a woman dressed in a purple cape asked. Emily looked around and saw that the café was indeed full.
The woman held a mug of tea and a cranberry scone which she placed on the table before Emily could answer. She had red hair braided in swirls on top of her head and lovely hazel eyes. She took out a ball of pale blue yarn from a Scottish plaid bag she had carried on her shoulder and started to knit with a pair of ivory needles.
“Do you live in the neighborhood?” the woman asked. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“I don’t live far, but for some reason I never came here until today,” Emily said. “The coffee’s fantastic.”
Emily watched the woman nimbly moving her fingers as she knitted what appeared to be the beginning of a baby’s jacket.
“My name is Melinda,” the woman said. “My husband died last year.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Emily tried more of her biscotti, which tasted more like mint than chocolate.
“Don’t be,” she said. “He was an awful man. Not when I married him. But the past few years he lost all his compassion. He hated everyone. I was going to leave him but then he was hit by a bus, and I never had the satisfaction of closing the door on his face.”
“He’s a real nowhere man,” sung by the Beatles emanated from hidden speakers.
Emily looked at her watch. She planned to go book browsing at the Strand Bookstore nearby. A thousand miles of books! She stood up to leave but Melinda touched her arm.
“Please don’t go just yet,” she said. “I want to tell your fortune.”
Emily sat back down, intrigued.
“My Aunt Pearl in Chinatown just read my palm recently,” Emily said.
“I think I know her,” Melinda said. “I went to see her once a few years ago. She told me my husband would cheat on me and she was right about that.”
“You met my Aunt Pearl? How can that be?”
Melinda took out of a pack of Visconti gilt-edged tarot cards.
“Choose three cards,” she said.
Emily picked three cards from the deck and placed them on the table, all with images of women. The Popess, the Queen of Swords, and in the center a card that showed a woman in a golden dress and crown sitting in a bejeweled chariot pulled by majestic white horses.
“Excellent,” Melinda said. “The trip ahead of you is blessed with good fortune. You should cherish your women friends.”
She took one more card from the deck, the Page of Coins.
“Just beware of a well-dressed man who pretends to be your friend,” she said. “He will only betray you.”
Then Melinda put away her cards and the rest of her things in the Scottish plaid bag.
“Goodbye for now, my dear,” she said.
Emily left Three Dog Night a few minutes later and walked into sunlight.
Emily hadn’t seen Dianna Macavoi for two weeks because she had gone away to Budapest and Prague with a rich surgeon she had met at the opera. Emily was relieved to finally see her again because her Elevor prescription had run out.
“So give me a report,” Dianna said. “How have you been feeling?”
“Pretty well,” Emily said. She grabbed a chocolate square from the plate of sweets Dianna left on the table between them.
“But have you been taking the subway?”
“No, I’ve been mostly walking or taking the bus.”
Dianna squirted some aloe skin lotion on her hands and rubbed it into her skin. Emily noticed Dianna was wearing a large sapphire ring she hadn’t seen before.
“What are you waiting for?” Dianna asked. “I want you to take the subway at least three times this week. Remember to pay attention to your breathing if you start feeling anxious.”
“I’ll try,” Emily said. “Can you renew my Elevor prescription?”
“Yes, and I’d like you to stay on the same dosage because you are doing much better. Have you been able to sleep?”
“Yes, and my dreams have been great. Last night I dreamed about that masseuse Gabriel.“
Dianna moved to the edge of her seat. “What happened in the dream?”
“We were sitting on a beach in Carmel,” Emily said. “The sand was blinding white and the ocean was a gorgeous aquamarine. We were both fully clothed. Gabriel had on the same white clothes he wore when he gave me the massage but this time he wore a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off more of his muscular arms and I could see his nipples through the cotton. And his wavy reddish hair wasn’t tied back but fell around his face.
“I was wearing a light sundress but I felt like I had a fever. I asked him if I could cut his hair with these golden scissors my Aunt Pearl had given me. I asked him three times but each time he said no, he liked his hair the way it was. I waited for him to fall asleep and then I cut off a lock of his hair. The next thing I knew he opened his eyes, glared at me, grabbed my hand so I dropped the scissors, and then threw me on my back onto the sand. He was about to pin me down but then I woke up.”
“What a shame the dream didn’t last longer,” Dianna said. “Our time is up, but let’s discuss this next time.”
A few of the staff of NYC All Over, including Emily, had been invited to a sneak preview of a major Hollywood film at the Ziegfeld Theater in Midtown. Though Emily had tried her best to find out the name of the film, the studio releasing the movie had somehow managed to keep the title a secret from the press, which made the screening a must-see for many entertainment writers in the city. The invitation also included a party after the film at an apartment building near Lincoln Center.
Emily decided she would take the subway to the theater. She made sure to take an Elevor an hour before she was set to leave. She stopped by Lisa’s office to see if she wanted to go with her uptown but her lights were out. Then she called Miguel on her cell phone but she got his voice mail. She did manage to reach Robbie. He couldn’t make the screening but he agreed to meet her for the party.
Emily entered the subway at an entrance near 14th Street and Union Square. As she waited on the platform for the Q train, she already felt her heart beating faster. She started to concentrate on her breathing and counting in increments of ten. Trains arrived on the opposite platform. After waiting ten minutes, she became impatient and headed toward the stairs. She would catch a cab.
But then the Q pulled into the station.
The car she entered was only half full so she wouldn’t have to worry about feeling crowded. She found a seat near the doors so she could make a quick escape. The Q was an express so she only had to stay confined in the subway car for three stops. A young man wearing a Mets baseball cap sat next to her, and she could hear piano music faintly seeping through his headphones as he closed his eyes to listen.
The train car became more crowded at 34th Street. Passengers filled up the space in front of her seat. The car doors closed three times, with a ringing sound each time. But then the train didn’t move.
“We’re sorry for the delay,” a woman’s voice said over the ceiling loudspeaker. “There’s a train stuck in the station ahead of us. We should be moving shortly.”
Emily looked at her watch. She still had more than enough time to get to the movie theater. But she wished the conductor would open the doors while they were waiting. She looked up at the freckle-faced woman standing in front of her to see if she could start a conversation. But the woman was deeply engrossed in reading her book, Seeking the Lover Within…And Other True-Life Tales. Emily searched through her handbag to find a mint to soothe her dry throat. At the far end of the car a man, whose head was lost in a huge black cowboy hat, started to play a guitar and sing, “Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed.” Emily remembered her father playing the original Dylan recording over and over one summer they had spent in Woodstock. What kind of music was her father listening to now? she wondered.
As the man sang, “…stay with your man awhile,” the train moved forward and in a matter of minutes Emily dashed out the subway car, up the stairs, and onto the street. She walked briskly to the Ziegfeld Theater.
Inside, the walls were covered with red velvet fabric trimmed with black. Emily saw Miguel, Lisa, and a few others from the office sitting in rows in the front section. She waved to them but because she didn’t like sitting so close to the screen, she found a seat on the aisle further back. After a few minutes, a man in his thirties with a closely shaved blond head sat down next to her. He wore a perfectly tailored black suit and a pale gray shirt with pearl buttons opened at the neck. She admired the silver and turquoise bracelet on his right wrist. He smiled at her.
“So what brings you here?” he asked.
“I work for NYC All Over and cover events,” she said. “What about you?”
“I designed the costumes for the film,” he said. “I’m Ian McBride.”
He shook her hand.
“Emily Wong,” she said. “So you can tell me what film we’re seeing tonight.”
“Yes, I could,” he said. “But it’s more fun to keep it a secret.”
“Did you work on the modern day version of Lady with a Lap Dog? I loved the costumes in that,” she said.
“Yes, thank you, that was me,” he said. “By the way, have you ever considered doing some modeling? I think you’d look lovely in some of my designs.”
Emily laughed. “No, I doubt I’d be any good at it. But that’s nice of you to say.”
“I’m being serious,” he said. He reached in his jacket pocket and took out a small gold case, which he opened. “Here’s my card. Feel free to be in touch. I always read my own e-mail.”
Emily placed the card in a safe place in her handbag. She doubted she would ever want to model but maybe they could have a drink sometime. Then she recalled what Melinda had said to her: Beware of a well-dressed man.
Could she have possibly meant Ian McBride?
The lights began to dim.
“I hope you like the movie,” Ian whispered.
First, a trailer advertised The Last Journey, about an old man’s search for his stolen snow leopard. The scenery in the Central Asian mountains looked breathtaking. The trailer ended with a huge close-up of a snow leopard looking into the camera with very sad eyes.
Then the main feature began. A dark-haired man with an elongated face, dressed in a long black raincoat and smoking a pipe, walked into the entrance of Victoria Station in London. Then he was standing on a platform as a futuristic-looking train pulled in. A lovely brunette enfolded in a burgundy wool coat walked toward him.
“Are you ready?” he said.
“I suppose,” she said in a slightly bored tone.
Then they looked up at the sky and a spaceship was hovering in the distance.
Over a pale blue sky, title credits in cursive script read COLIN FIRTH AND MARION COTILLARD and faded into the clouds. And then, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND MADAME BOVARY: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Some people in the audience laughed. A buzz of talk continued until the opening credits were over.
“I like the costumes already,” Emily whispered.
The film was full of action and romance and grand special effects. Holmes and Bovary encountered a group of scary aliens. The duo managed to outwit them after putting themselves in countless near-death encounters.
When the film was over, the audience clapped loudly as Holmes and Bovary danced in outer space.
“Perhaps I’ll see you at the party?” Ian said. “Think about wearing one of my dresses!” And then he was gone.
Robbie was waiting for her in front of a tall apartment complex on West 66th Street, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had just washed his long curly black hair and his blue denim shirt and black jeans were freshly pressed. Emily had forgotten how handsome he looked when he made the effort. They had known each other for years and she sometimes wondered if she took him for granted.
“So what movie did you see?” he asked.
Emily told him. “Not exactly what I was expecting. But the acting was excellent. The British actors playing the red and green aliens were particularly creepy, but then the Brits are so good at that, aren’t they?”
“Do you know what floor the party is on?” he asked.
Emily took out the invitation.
“Fifth floor,” she said. “Why don’t we walk up?”
“I knew you’d say that,” he said. “But only if you promise me that we’ll take the elevator down when we leave.”
The apartment was already crowded when they arrived. Emily found Lisa standing near the table of hors d’oeuvres, next to a slender man who was about a foot shorter than she.
“Lisa, you remember Robbie,” Emily said.
“Of course, where have you been hiding?” Lisa said. “This is Antoine.”
Antoine smiled but didn’t say a word. He had to look up at Robbie as they were talking.
“Lisa has nothing but superlatives for your cooking,” Emily said. “I plan to come to your restaurant soon. You need to tell me what to order.”
“You know me, I love to eat,” Robbie said.
“Then I would avoid the pâté and the cheese,” Antoine said. “C’est horrible.” He left them to get a drink.
“I guess he’s hard to please when it comes to food,” Emily said, reaching for shrimp and some crackers.
“You should try the punch.” Lisa said. “I don’t know what’s in it but it’s highly addictive. Antoine won’t touch it for some reason.”
Robbie went to get two glasses.
“So how are things going with the master chef?” Emily asked. “Has he cooked you a meal yet?”
“No, but he did make me some luscious croissants. I’m going to turn into a cow. But look at him,” she said as she gazed over at Antoine on the other side of the room. Antoine appeared to be inspecting the desserts for any flaws.
“He doesn’t seem to gain a pound,” Lisa said. “Frankly, I rarely see him eat. But he’s certainly insatiable in bed.”
Emily felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and was surprised to see Gabriel.
“What a nice surprise,” he said. Gabriel gave her a hug and rubbed her back, which made her tingle inside. He was wearing a fitted black silk shirt and a silver medallion on a leather chain around his neck.
Emily introduced him to Lisa and Robbie, who had returned with the punch.
“If you ever need a relaxing massage, I can’t recommend Gabriel enough,” she told them.
“I hope you’ll come back soon,” Gabriel said, rubbing her arm. He pushed his copper-colored locks away from his face. “I know one of the hosts here, and she promised to drum up some business for me. I’d better mingle.”
He smiled at Lisa. “You should visit Helping Hands sometime.”
“I will.” Lisa watched him walk into the other room. She turned to Emily. “You never told me about him.”
“Nor me,” Robbie said. He drank his punch. “Wow, this is wonderful. I need to get some more.”
Emily took a sip. She could taste peach but maybe mango and pineapple and strawberry and raspberry as well. Whatever the ingredients, she suddenly felt incredibly happy.
Robbie came back with another glass of punch.
“I was talking to one of the other guests, and she told me that this building has a terrific view of the city on the roof,” he said. “Do you want to go up there? We’d have to take the elevator to the 20th floor.”
Normally Emily would have hesitated but she thought the idea of being out in the fresh air was a great idea.
“Let’s go right now,” she said.
“Don’t you want to get something to eat first?”
“We have plenty of time for that later.”
Emily and Robbie walked to the elevator.
“This is a big step for you,” he said as he pushed the up button.
“I think it’s the right time,” she said.
They got on the elevator, and Emily pushed the button for 20.
The elevator moved slowly but Emily didn’t panic. Robbie looked at her and smiled.
“What do you think was in that punch?” he said. “I feel like dancing.”
“I really don’t know, but I want to find out the recipe.”
She watched the white electronic numbers change as they went up and up. When they reached 19, the elevator stopped moving. But the doors didn’t open.
After a minute passed, Robbie said, “I think we’re stuck.”
He pressed the emergency button. Nothing happened.
Emily had imagined this moment for months on end and now it had finally happened. She was trapped in an elevator and might never get out. Or maybe the elevator would malfunction and start to descend without their control. She looked at Robbie.
“I’m a little scared,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“But not as scared as I would be if I were here alone,” she said.
Robbie pressed the emergency button again and then they heard a man’s voice faintly through the elevator speaker.
“What floor are you on?” the man’s voice said.
“19,” Robbie said.
“OK,” he said. “We’re going to get you out of there soon. Meanwhile just try to relax.”
The two of them sat down on the carpeted floor of the elevator.
Robbie took Emily’s hand and held it in his. Emily could feel the two of them breathing together, almost in unison. She tasted peach, then mango, then pineapple in her mouth, and imagined cutting Robbie’s curly black hair with golden scissors as they waited.
(c) David Low 2014
We’ll done! Really loved the story. Emily is someone I’d like to read more about. And The Sophisticated Pet! LOL! That was unexpected! Keep writing!
This story captured me in the first paragraph. I was gripped by David Low’s description of claustrophobia and panic. It was vivid and struck home with me – I have experienced panic in enclosed spaces before, and he really got it. I was swept up by this story and would love to read more by this author.
I loved the solid realism of the wonderful aunt and her golden scissors juxtaposed with the Dickens-reading zebra and the singing llama– all details that have stuck with me for days, in a good way, as has Emily’s claustrophobia and her missing father. Memorable.
Animals were especially unique aspects of the piece. The scenes were hallucinogenic. I found myself engrossed in your story as the provocative parts began to appear and I tried to make sense of them as a whole. I wish more clues were there for the scissors so the ending felt more connected. Very good, imaginative story.
Great story with really interesting characters and it takes place in one of my favorite cities!
Anyone that has suffered from claustrophobia will relate to Emily Wong. She has humor, taste and imagination. The sights and sounds of the city move you quickly through the story. It makes me want to hear more from this very talented writer.
Very much enjoyed the the mind bending, creative characters. Vivid descriptions of NYC landscape.
A very different and enjoyable short story. Being a native New Yorker i really felt you captured the city very well. You have enough characyers in this short stort to develop into a book.
Good story for a class to discuss,
Looking forward to future contributions.
this was a delightfully woven story – imaginative, quirky and ironically believable due to all the NYC references. thank you – very enjoyable.