Geraldine arrived at the Brooklyn Public Library an hour after the sun had dropped out of sight. The air was cool but not cold, and the snow was softening to slush. She watched middle-aged people carefully make their way up the steps and kids hunched under the weight of their backpacks stream out of the library’s revolving door. An aroma of ham sandwiches and pencil erasers filled the main hall.
She rode up on the escalator and stared over the balcony, down at the people waiting in line to return books, realizing suddenly that she felt self-conscious in her new designer outfit. Sunny’s openings only very occasionally took place in proper art galleries. More often they were in back rooms in private clubs and restaurants that didn’t exist unless you knew to ask for them. But of course that made the choice of this venue even more frustratingly brilliant.
Everything fell into place when Geraldine opened the door to the Hijuelos Room. It had already started to fill up with people making chitchat that bounced musically off the drawings and paintings of various styles lining the walls. The works bearing Sunny’s artistic fingerprint, all thick brushstrokes and bruisy shadows, put the other pieces to shame. Sunny was across the room, holding a glass of white wine beside her complicated updo and aiming her smile at a man whose mouth was moving at nervous speed. There was nothing quite so sweet as having Sunny’s full attention.
Geraldine threaded her way through the crowd, discerning notes of apricot and black pepper in the mingled perfumes. She spotted Christian, the rakish Icelandic yogurt impresario she’d been introduced to and had spent some time flirting with at a previous art opening—not Sunny’s but a member of her circle’s. Several of Sunny’s ex-boyfriends from her first few years in the city stood in a cluster around Servane Klein, Sunny’s first roommate in New York. The daughter of a famous gallerist, Servane was gorgeous as well as tall and big-hipped, which gave her an ageless quality that worked in her favor. Whatever Sunny had paid to live in Servane’s loft on Lafayette Street had been worth it. All the young as well as not-so-young somebodies in the New York art world used to filter through their apartment. Sunny had been in the city for barely a year when Servane and a few friends set up a gallery on the Lower East Side. She included a quartet of Sunny’s paintings in their opening show.
Geraldine realized she was staring and steered herself to the left. She saw Jeremy Cleeve and changed course yet again. She wasn’t in the mood. Jeremy had originally been a friend of Rachel’s husband, Matt. He owed his presence at the party to Geraldine, but he was such a comer that she was sure he no longer remembered that, or cared. Jeremy had created a company that helped baby boomers digitize their photo archives, which had made him ridiculously rich. Now he did something with microfinance and socks. He had snaggly teeth and was always offering to give Geraldine rides home. At the bar she took a single almond and fixed herself a glass of white wine. When she looked at the room again, Jeremy was gone.
Something jutted into Geraldine’s hip. “Congratulations,” came a deep voice. She looked up and saw the yogurt maker, his teeth and lips purple with drink. “Last time I saw you, you told me you were going to move here,” he said.
“It’s still in progress,” Geraldine said, and saw his face fall. “I’m here for an interview, with the CBC.” The yogurt maker looked at Geraldine with a blank expression. “The BBC of Canada,” she clarified, and he gave a high laugh. “Though you’re welcome to streamline the process and hire me yourself and give me a visa.”
“I would just marry him.” A new voice entered the conversation. It belonged to Benny Tait, one of Sunny’s exes. He was a self-appointed intellectual, with wire-rim glasses and curly brown hair that was starting to recede. “You could be the dairy queen.”
Geraldine forced a smile and scanned the room. As far as she could tell, Gus hadn’t bothered to come. Probably for the best. She needed to focus on tomorrow. And for the time being, she was sandwiched by two cute guys from Sunny’s world who seemed to be alternately vying for her attention and working together to ignore her. She felt her status as entourage member acutely. Geraldine thought back to the early days, when she and Sunny were more or less on a par with each other. There was even a period, however fleeting, when Sunny reported to Province’s tempestuous creative director, Françoise, and the scales tipped in Geraldine’s favor. The Sunday after Geraldine’s official promotion, Sunny sneaked into Geraldine’s new office and installed a towering rubber tree and a congratulatory carton of Vernors diet ginger ale. Geraldine now glanced across the room at Sunny, who was talking to the same man as before, her smile barely tolerant as she plotted her next move.
Geraldine directed her attention back to the men, who were comparing tasting notes on the mince pies Sunny had baked and arranged around a ziggurat of colorful vintage wooden blocks. There was a competitive edge to their banter. The guys Geraldine knew in Toronto also did this. When exactly had men decided they would rather joust over food than sports?
She was preparing to express her opinion when something at the other end of the room made her breath go shallow. Gus peeled off a black overcoat and slowly hung it on the coatrack without bothering to survey the scene. There was a steadiness to Gus that extended to all actions he performed. Even when he’d pushed Geraldine’s body onto his bed and ministered to her, his excitement had manifested only as an air of intense concentration. Flat against his duvet, Geraldine had joked about her Silly Putty–colored bra, which she’d nicknamed her “Pilly Slutty,” but he’d ignored her and run his hand beneath the undergarment. Geraldine’s insides fluttered as she remembered the ticklish feeling of his breath against her thigh. At the time she was officially happy, yet she’d been too nervous to enjoy it. Afterward, when she was still on her back, Gus reached for his phone and ordered an Uber. It wasn’t until the car was on Rachel’s block that Geraldine realized he hadn’t even asked how long she’d be in town.
Geraldine slunk away from Benny and Christian and spent the next hour circling the room, making sure that Gus would witness her having more people to talk to than she could possibly accommodate. Luckily, she’d been to enough Sunny gatherings to know nearly everybody, and Sunny’s friends were always happy to ask questions about life in Canada. Sunny was from Canada, so that made it interesting. Geraldine obliged, saying what they wanted to hear, which D-list movie stars had been rotating through the temporary apartment she could see into from her bathroom window, and how everyone in her odd little city was obsessed with a new gourmet store where you could point at ingredients through a window and design your own “hand-ground” chip dip.
At last she found her way to the woman of the hour. Sunny raised her arms in the air like a sorceress before taking Geraldine in for a hug. “Sweetie! Why aren’t you staying with me?”
Geraldine was speechless.
“We got a new guest bureau and everything,” Sunny went on. “Promise me you will next time.”
“It’s a date,” Geraldine said in confusion. She had barely congratulated Sunny on the show when Gus joined them. Geraldine couldn’t help noticing he’d waited to come say hello until she was talking to Sunny. Standing this close to Gus, Geraldine was reminded that he was just a human being. Chocolate-colored dog hair clung to his shirtsleeves, and he was a full two or three inches shorter than Geraldine—even tonight, when she’d worn fur-lined snow boots that had barely any lift at all.
“Can everyone come closer together?” A mousy woman with an oversize black camera crouched in front of the three of them. Sunny barely moved, and the other two drifted in to bookend her.
“I’ll catch you both later,” Sunny said after the library photographer had wandered off. “I should probably go save Nick.” Geraldine knew this wasn’t true—Nick never stayed in place at cocktail parties long enough to necessitate any rescuing.
Gus shuffled his feet as he and Geraldine exchanged glances. “I wasn’t sure if I’d see you here,” he said.
Her laugh came out sounding a little deranged. “But I told you I was coming,” she said.
He squinted, looked sheepish. “Are you staying with Sunny?”
“I was . . . I was supposed to,” she sputtered. “I have a job interview tomorrow.”
“That’s exciting,” he said, without looking remotely excited or asking who it was with. “I mean, is it?”
“I hope so. As long as I don’t mess it up. I haven’t had one in a while.”
“Let me know how it goes.” Gus’s eyes lingered on Geraldine’s face, and she understood a beat too late that he was gearing up to say good-bye. The party was winding down; a line was forming by the coatrack.
“Hey,” she said, a desperate edge to her voice. “Are you going to the drinks thing?”
“Where is it?”
Something lifted within her. “I don’t know—I can ask Sunny?” “Nah.” Gus shook his head and looked down. “I’m supposed to meet someone in the city, actually.” He didn’t need to say any more. Another woman was written all over his face. Geraldine’s heart snapped. “I’m probably not going to stay for long,” she said, managing her tone into neutral. “It’s just that I promised Sunny.”
He nodded, seemed relieved. “Good luck tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe next time you’re in town, we can have lunch.”
“For sure,” Geraldine said, and concentrated on holding her poise as Gus kissed her lightly on the cheek and walked away. She was humiliated, but also slightly relieved that he was leaving so she wouldn’t have to spend the drinks portion of the evening being rejected.
Sunny’s contingent moved on to a loud restaurant on Franklin Avenue, where Geraldine chatted with a circle of cool, mostly single women, including a sloe-eyed handbag designer who had just spent her fiftieth birthday surfing in Uruguay. At one point Sunny appeared and leaned her head on Geraldine’s shoulder, a gesture that filled Geraldine with a sweet contentment that lingered long after Sunny sailed off to conspire in a corner with Servane.
Geraldine must have gone twenty minutes without thinking about Gus, and when she did, she relegated the memory to the back of her mind, then scanned her surroundings and gave a little swoon. There wasn’t a dull person in sight. She didn’t need Gus. New York was where she was meant to be, to the degree where she sometimes felt that she was already there, leading a parallel life in some alternate dimension, waiting for the Geraldine who was stuck in Toronto to figure out how to latch on to her fate. She was happy here, and only here. This understanding bloomed within her each time she visited New York, especially when she was basking in the margins of Sunny’s life. Even if it was impossible to get close to Sunny, she still possessed a magical ability to make others feel like a slightly more satisfying version of themselves, or electrically close to it. The feeling that Geraldine began to experience at Sunny’s afterparty took root overnight. It only began to dissipate the following after- noon, when Tom Newlin made it clear that he had no intention of hiring her.
Most of her twenty-five-minute meeting with Tom was given over to Canadian media gossip—he dropped that he knew a lot of the old Province crew. Geraldine changed the subject to Sunny’s latest accomplishments before he could bring up Peter’s name. Some- times she could remain level when she heard people talk about Peter. Other times it sent her right back, to the hurt of being told by the man she loved with a blinding fierceness that she was, essentially, too decent to love. “I don’t trust myself to do right by somebody as pure and good as you,” he’d said. “Maybe it would be different if you were damaged, too, but you’re ridiculously perfect, from every angle.” The hardest part of hearing this was that she considered Peter to be the perfect one, perfectly flawed. She knew that she would never find somebody equal to him.
Tom was considerably younger than Geraldine, who suspected he’d cultivated his thick belly and Brillo-pad beard as strategic distractions from his lack of experience. “Barb speaks the world of you,” Tom said when he finally picked Geraldine’s résumé off his lap and moved it to a pile on his desk. “Too bad our business is on its last legs.”
“Don’t say that,” Geraldine countered gamely. “People are still hungry for news. The models are just transitioning.”
“Maybe.” Tom pursed his lips and made a tiny sucking sound. “Web is more disappointing than you’d think. I mean, unless you crack Facebook, but otherwise you’re looking at a whole lot of content with not a lot of page views. Video is working, but clearly that’s not your thing.”
Geraldine opened her mouth, but Tom kept talking. “The only area where I can possibly imagine somebody with your background entering the picture is podcasts. They’re cheap to make, and you wouldn’t believe how people eat them up. Last year we saw double-digit growth. This year will be even higher.”
“I listen to podcasts all the time.”
“When?” He sounded skeptical.
“When I’m grocery shopping. Or cooking.” She knew better than to mention that she often continued listening through dinner. “Which ones?”
“Mostly news,” Geraldine lied. “And there’s one I just got hooked on, Great White Gay, where the host brings in a Broadway star and they unpack a famous show tune. It’s really smart. I would love to produce one—or some . . .” Her voice trailed off.
Tom cracked his knuckles and tossed a longing glance at his computer screen. “We’re not very deep in the podcast world, but we are certainly talking about expanding. So I’ll keep your interest in mind, and maybe we’ll talk again.”
“Definitely, I’ll send you some ideas.” As Geraldine rose to her feet, she felt a pleasant sensation born less of standing up too quickly than of true excitement. The world had said no to her countless times. She’d heard the word so often that it had almost no impact at all. What mattered was that Tom had led her to an idea. Pointed her in the right direction at least. Not that he deserved much credit. She was the one who’d fought her way to him.
Geraldine beelined it for the subway station. She couldn’t wait to get back to Rachel’s and tell her about the meeting. She was going to move into podcasts. Not that podcasts themselves were necessarily so thrilling, but she was going to use them to pave the path to the life she deserved. It would be like Sunny’s life, but without a skulking husband and multiple addresses. Which was fine. Money didn’t excite Geraldine. She imagined her future self, waking up in a clean studio apartment and walking to the bodega, spending her days listening to interesting conversations. She was ready to stop thinking about running into Peter and worrying about Sunny’s discarded Toronto apartment—which lonely soul she was going to share it with next and whether she was going to die in it too young or too old. Sunny was good at choosing interesting spaces, though, and maybe Geraldine should convince her to vet her new apartment when she moved to New York.
When Geraldine got off the subway, she headed down Greene Avenue to Sancerrely Yours. She was going to buy something special for Rachel and Matt, a wine that was better than the usual offering grabbed off the twelve-dollar-and-under table. She couldn’t wait to see Rachel’s face when she Googled the vintage, as Geraldine knew her friend would, and discovered it was a twenty-six-dollar bottle!
From How Could She by Lauren Mechling, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Lauren Mechling.