An Introduction by Halimah Marcus
To be young and in a city teeming with celebrity and poverty, with possibility and disappointment, is, for me, a subject that will never grow old.
I remember the second or third time I visited New York. I was a freshman in college and a friend brought me to the apartment where he’d grown up, a high rise in Hell’s Kitchen. As I looked out the window, I was hit by existential vertigo. Whatever floor we were on seemed too high up for anyone to live. I’d never met anyone who’d grown up in Manhattan before. This guy was somewhat tortured and neurotic, and in that moment, living that high up since childhood seemed to explain all of his problems.
“Arthur once explained to me that some cities expand up and some expand out,” the narrator of “Make Believe” remarks. Arthur is her ex-boyfriend, who has moved to a foreign city. “Vertical sprawl and horizontal sprawl. If you can, he said, pick a vertical city. They encourage optimism.” The narrator may not be optimistic, but she is certainly wry, tactile, and alert — nothing escapes her, or her author, the equally astute Clare Sestanovich. Perhaps at Arthur’s suggestions, a sense of scale and distance permeates the narrator’s imaginings. She imagines going to the airport in the early morning: “I’d hand over my belongings, like everyone else, and we would watch them disappear on a conveyor belt, somehow certain we would see them again, thousands of miles away.” She imagines all of the emergency stairs in the city, laid end to end. She remembers elevators with regret-tinged nostalgia, as if they are former lovers: “I had been in elevators with uniformed operators, and elevators with no buttons at all. Somehow they already knew where you were going.”
After a job she had lined up for a celebrity falls through, she cobbles together various odd jobs, like an artist without the art, and reads everything she can about the celebrity in her spare time, trying to close the distance between herself and a stranger with whom she has become infatuated.
Then, another job, another elevator: “To become a night nanny, I took an elevator to a locked floor.” The twenty-sixth floor, to be precise, where the elevator doors open directly onto a pristine entryway, unmarred by human belongings. She sleeps in a bunk bed below the child — Susan, not Susie — a five-year-old who has more in common with the celebrity than her new night nanny. Wealth has given Susan an uncanny way about her. Her parents are ghosts in formal wear, clicking on marble after bedtime. She claims to know which shoes her mother is wearing by the sound. The narrator reads interviews with the celebrity while Susan sleeps. The distance she has been trying to shut grows.
It’s a defining quality of urban existence; moving into other people’s spaces and pretending to belong.
After nearly a decade living in the city, the unnatural distances between people, either too close or worlds apart, still catches me off guard. It’s a defining quality of urban existence; moving into other people’s spaces and pretending to belong. With “Make Believe,” Sestanovich is writing about more than alienation, or loneliness. She’s writing about the search for belonging and connection that gives loneliness it’s sharp edge, a feeling that is mirrored by vast spaces and elevators shooting up dozens of stories, a feeling that becomes more acute the higher your climb.
City Dwellers Live the Furthest Apart
by Clare Sestanovic
Exactly one week after I told Arthur to stop contacting me — which felt like filling my mouth with a lot of dirt and the occasional rock — I got a job with a celebrity. It wasn’t an extraordinary job. A commercial for deodorant or cologne, something to do with pleasant odors.
My own sense of smell is underdeveloped. A man once speculated that this might explain my lack of enthusiasm for sexual conquests. Like dogs, he said, a lot of people go wild in pursuit of a certain scent.
“Like dogs?” I said, and he nodded.
At that point, the celebrity had been one of my objects of fixation for a number of years. I’d had these kinds of obsessions — can we call them companions? — for as long as I could remember. They were generally famous or dead, and sometimes both. They were always men, which I admit was unoriginal.
I had considered what the celebrity liked to eat and how his apartment — large but not opulent — would be laid out. When I left the house, it was always with the possibility of bumping into him, or at least spotting him in an adjacent check-out line. This was implausible, but not impossible; he did live in my city. (Many people do.)
The celebrity was an actor, and it was often said that he had remarkable range. He starred in biopics about assassinated politicians, and movies about ordinary people living in cramped houses. There was trauma in his youth, which he only ever mentioned obliquely. Something happened, I think, to his brother.
The night before the job started, I was in a crowded bar for the engagement party of a friend whom I no longer knew very well. There were motorcycle helmets in many colors and styles mounted on the walls. They took up an enormous amount of space, and everyone clustered in the middle of the bar to avoid bumping into them. It was difficult to linger on the party’s periphery. The opaque visors surveilled us unkindly.
I found myself talking to a very thin woman, whose wrists I admired. I imagined her storming off and someone grabbing her wrist. Don’t go! Except when I imagined this, her wrists were my wrists. Stay!
We swirled our drinks around and eventually I told her I was going home early, because of the job with the celebrity. I said his name to her and she said, “You don’t have a job with him.”
“I do!” I said this with delight I hadn’t yet expressed, because this was the first time I had told anyone about the job. I would have told Arthur, except my mouth was clogged with dirt and rocks. I felt good releasing this delight.
“You don’t,” she repeated.
I began to feel angry at her refusal to share my delight.
“Do you know the fiancé or the fiancée?” I said, to change the subject. I did my best to differentiate the two pronunciations, though I do not know French.
“He died,” the woman said, “just this afternoon.” She pulled out her phone, and showed me the homepage of a semi-serious news outlet. The celebrity’s name was there, along with some version of the word death.
The job had been scheduled to start very early. I had set several alarms three or four minutes apart, as I did when going to the airport at unnatural hours. And in fact the day before the job was not unlike the day before an important trip. I found it difficult to concentrate, and tried to think of ways to fortify my body. I installed an app that reminded me to drink water at regular intervals.
The very thin woman pulled up several more websites in quick succession, to prove, I suppose, that the celebrity was truly dead, though I had said nothing disputing what she told me. She seemed to be sympathetic to my shock, which only made me feel more misunderstood. There had been, the websites said, a not unsurprising public outpouring of grief. I wanted to say: do you think I am just a sad fan? But to myself I had to admit: aren’t I just a sad fan?
I left the bar, and found myself repeating the now-defunct excuse as I said goodbye. I have to be up early, I told my friend, the fiancé.
The alarms went off, one after the other, while my room was completely dark. The streetlamp outside my window had been broken, un-fixed, for weeks. The dark felt like a rural dark.
There might have been an email somewhere, explaining that I didn’t need to report to work. Or did they — and it was lonely, just then, to realize I had no idea who they were — assume everyone had heard the news. I imagined a car outside my window, in the place where the streetlamp’s cone of light would have been, waiting to take me to a plane.
In one of the celebrity’s most famous movies, he is summoned home after many years away by the death of his father, a cruel and complicated patriarch. He boards a plane in funeral attire. It is hot and sandy where he’s going, and he will be overdressed. The plane touches down, and you can see the collar digging into his neck, the tie too tight when he swallows. The wheels of his suitcase click on a polished floor. The gasp of the automatic doors is also the sound of heat hitting him in the face.
My alarm rang again. The airport would be mostly empty at this hour, in the middle of the week. I’d hand over my belongings, like everyone else, and we would watch them disappear on a conveyor belt, somehow certain we would see them again, thousands of miles away.
I kept my eyes open, because I didn’t want to fall back asleep. It’s different to picture things with your eyes open. In my head, I boarded the plane and breathed the recycled air. In the room, my eyes adjusted to the dark. The familiar objects. A landscape of things I have bought. It’s repulsive to be surrounded by so many purchased things.
I would have liked to feel the lurch in my stomach when the wheels lift off the ground and the wings take over, but there is only so far a body will go in the service of imagination.
Six months before the celebrity died, Arthur left the city we lived in together, where seventy to ninety percent of our friends also lived. He moved to a dense foreign city that was friendly to ex-pats, but not too friendly. It was difficult enough to count as an adventure.
The expression is: he followed a job. This makes him sound obedient, like a dog on a leash. I didn’t follow him, because he didn’t ask me to and he didn’t ask me not to, and his indifference frightened me. I was only in the habit of chasing things in my head.
It was unclear if we were still dating, though he texted me a lot. Mostly photos, mostly of dogs. The large public parks in his new city were overrun with them. He had never heard so much barking. Sweating through his office clothes, he became fascinated by the anatomy of canine tongues.
Panting, he texted me. Incredible technology.
I read the text and decided to respond in twenty minutes. He texted again.
Why do we keep our tongues in our mouths?
I took a shower to pass the time. Eighteen minutes later, I said: so we can talk!
What was most remarkable about the parks, Arthur said, was that they were frequented by purebreds and strays in equal numbers. The dogs had elegant noses and human-like hair that touched the ground. Others had more skin than fur, taut pink patches where they scratched until they bled.
He sends me a picture of greyhound getting his teeth brushed. Later, a pit bull with sagging nipples and a shredded-up ear, like paper ripped out of a notebook. There were ornate fountains in the park. Cherubs spitting, pissing, glinting in the sun.
The photos were probably supposed to stand for something. They might have been about social inequities and colonial legacies, which were the kind of thing Arthur studied. They might have been simpler: humor or tenderness, or loneliness that turned into a burst of desire.
It was tempting to think they stood for missing you, but it would have breached the terms of our intimacy to ask. We knew better than to take pride in wordless comprehension, but we did it anyway.
When the celebrity died, I went back to looking for odd jobs. I learned this approach to employment from my friend, an aspiring artist. He told me everyone he knew — other aspiring artists — worked this way. Cobbling things together, was how he put it. I told him I wasn’t sure I was entitled to be a cobbler. I had never made any art. He smiled pityingly, and referred me to my first job, walking a pair of miniature Australian shepherds. Before the walk, I fed them each a Prozac, crushed into a dish of their favorite meaty stew.
Most often, I found work as a personal assistant. I learned this could mean many different things. A woman with a laryngectomy wanted me to sort her extensive jewelry collection. Her neck hole wheezed loudly while she watched me untangle delicate silver chains. She made me empty my pockets before I left. Later, a young couple with a tiny apartment hired me to do their grocery shopping. Sheepishly, they asked if I would wait on them during dinner.
“It’s like” — the husband looked as his wife instead of looking at me — “make-believe.”
“Growing up, Travis always wanted a butler,” she said.
They unfolded a card table for dinner, which blocked the route to the bathroom, but they tipped generously. For dessert, I unwrapped Klondike bars and served them on plates.
The jobs were usually short-lived, and most weeks I found myself in new parts of town. Arthur once explained to me that some cities expand up and some expand out. Vertical sprawl and horizontal sprawl. If you can, he said, pick a vertical city. They encourage optimism.
Our city, which was now just my city, had skyscrapers and many-story walk-ups. There were pharmacies and grocery stores with vaulted ceilings — fifty feet of empty space above the shelves — that had once been famous banks.
I had been in elevators with uniformed operators, and elevators with no buttons at all. Somehow they already knew where you were going.
I thought about all the emergency stairs in the city, one on top of the other. It didn’t really mean anything to me to picture how high they would go, because a thousand feet in the air doesn’t seem all that different from ten thousand feet in the air. Both involve a lot of clouds. I could only get purchase on the idea if I imagined the stairs taking me across land, bridging two places I could locate on a map.
Three months had passed — the celebrity had long since stopped appearing in headlines — when I answered an ad for a night nanny, because my sleeping schedule had already gotten out of whack. I liked scrolling through my feeds in the dark, when I could be sure that only strangers were awake. Nearly everyone I knew — the number seemed to be dwindling — lived in the same time zone. Increasingly, they believed in regular bedtimes. They adjusted their screens to glow soothing orange at night, and wore expensive mouth guards that made them lisp.
While my known world slept, I read the celebrity’s tweets. I watched him interview with a late-night TV host who was also dead. I memorized real estate listings for houses he’d sold years before.
There were articles speculating on the circumstances of the celebrity’s death, which I studiously avoided. I lived in fear that one day I would accidentally read one of these articles. A few times, I dreamed that I had, and I woke up with my head and arms pulled inside my shirt, breathing damply into the fabric.
I found his sister’s Instagram, which featured her infant twins, his niece and nephew, and blender-only recipes. Before the sister became a mother, she had posted photos of unpaired gloves she found on the street. Abandoned, muddy, flattened by tires. The hashtag, #seekingsoulmate, had amassed an enthusiastic following, and included lone socks and sneakers.
When the celebrity was alive, I had avoided this kind of behavior. It was unseemly and conventional. What I longed for — fantasized is a word I dislike — was knowing him, not knowing things about him. This felt like a principled distinction. Now I investigated him, collected him. At strange hours, when late-at-night becomes early in the morning, my greed managed to look like something else. My phone a bright square in a dark room, pretending to be a portal or a treasure or at the very least a time machine. After all, wasn’t it always dying and coming back to life?
To become a night nanny, I took an elevator to a locked floor. When I jabbed the button, it flashed orange for a half a second and went dark. The doorman had to swipe a special card to take me to the twenty-sixth story, where the elevator opened directly into the front hall. There were no shoes or coats. There was an end table with a fan of reputable magazines and a framed handwritten letter, presumably from someone famous, though I didn’t recognize the name.
I was interviewed by the mother and three other women, who I gathered were the day nannies. They asked me questions while we observed the plate of cookies between us.
“Did you have — ” the mother said.
“Have you ever had,” the first nanny interjected.
“ — a formative caregiver?”
They seemed disappointed when I told them what little I could remember of the years I had spent in daycare.
The girl was five years old and her name was Susan, which I considered a name for adults. The first nanny explained that Susan didn’t respond to Sue or Susie.
“Or sweetie,” the second nanny added.
Terms of endearment were off limits.
The mother left in the middle of the conversation, reappeared in flattering gym-wear, then left again. The father was mentioned only once. He alone, the third nanny said, was allowed to say honey.
It was Susan herself who showed me the bunk bed where we would sleep. She told me I could keep my pajamas under my pillow.
“Or bring them in a tote bag,” she said solemnly.
The job mostly required sleeping. I relieved the day nannies around the time Susan was brushing her teeth. She wore nightgowns, or a onesie with the feet scissored off. Otherwise, she said, wearing it was like drowning.
“Like suffocating,” I said, because I was pretty sure I understood.
“I want to wiggle my toes.”
I rubbed a toothpaste stain on Susan’s sleeve and told her I admired her approach to problem solving.
While Susan slept on the bunk above me, I searched the Internet. Every several hours, I calculated the time difference between Arthur’s city and mine.
The celebrity had not been immune from gossip. The tabloids kept track of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends. The length of his beard and the width of his tie were noted at red-carpet events. Photos showed him striding through parking lots with sunglasses and coffee. The camera zoomed in on his shopping bag. Stars, the magazines insisted, they’re just like us.
Public scrutiny of the celebrity didn’t outrage me. Fame is a burden, and perhaps it should be. But this claim, above all, was painful: if he was like us at all — the possibility was thrilling but vague, like trying to picture the face of the child you’ll one day have — it had nothing to do with what he bought or drank or looked like when startled.
Occasionally, the headlines said the celebrity was exhausted. In the world of famous people, I learned, this was a clinical term. On my nights with Susan, I hardly slept. In the morning, when it was time to leave, a car was waiting for me. It was sleek and black, with miniature water bottles in the back seat. The first time it picked me up, I finished all four bottles in quick, desperate gulps, and the next day there were eight, wedged into the cup holders. Mortified, I never touched them again.
Often, I went weeks without seeing Susan’s parents. I heard the elevator gasp open late at night. They made the sounds of rich people. Fancy heels on fancy floors. Keys to luxury vehicles on custom-cut marble. Where did they learn to murmur like that?
Once or twice, the noise woke Susan up. She peered over the top bunk. In the dark, she seemed even less like a child.
“It’s them,” she said.
I nodded. My phone illuminated my face. On the screen, the celebrity lifted the twins in the air as if they were barbells. They were tiny. Palm-able. He grinned sheepishly at his biceps. I pictured my chin glowing bluish, and for a moment it was intolerably sad that Susan had never seen my face in the sun.
“Her green boots,” Susan said.
“I can tell from the sound.”
We listened to the feet click.
“No you can’t,” I said.
Susan looked at me silently for a few seconds, and I could tell I had betrayed her. She pulled her head back, disappeared above me.
In the kitchen, the fridge sucked and unsucked loudly. Above me, Susan didn’t toss or turn or snore. Was she awake? Was my job to keep her asleep — her eyes closed? I could hear things that didn’t belong to me rattling, clinking. When they spoke — these people I could barely picture, in voices I couldn’t quite make out — I felt desire in my cheeks and the soft hair on my ears. Like someone whispering so close the words are whorls on your skin.
A few months after Arthur moved away, he told me he was dating someone new. The straightforwardness of this embarrassed us both. We disliked discussing predictable events. The truth, of course, was that I was desperate for the small details of his life.
Her name, her hair, where she read the news.
I could have asked. Does she eat as quickly, as ravenously, as you do? Does she post earnest things online? Does she call her parents on the phone?
Did she know how to answer when you said — naked and tangled, in a bed I’ll never see — tell me what you want?
Instead I said, “Does she speak English?”
They spoke in her language, which I had hardly ever heard Arthur use. A few years before, on our way back from a long trip, we stopped for a day and a night in their city, back when it was not yet their city. I was surprised by how quickly and loudly Arthur spoke, like he was selling something. Shoving words into other people’s hands. I listened to him barter for a bag of spiced nuts. I was a little bit disgusted.
Later, sitting alone in a park while Arthur went jogging, the thought of his foreign voice turned me on. An ugly dog investigated my foot, and I ignored him. I pictured my face pressed into the mattress and Arthur’s hand pressed into my back. When it was over, he would murmur words I couldn’t understand. There would be parts of him inside me I couldn’t see.
This was what I liked best about sex: possessing something we couldn’t even be sure existed. I hated the sight of semen. Smeared on my thighs, dribbled on my stomach. Milkiness inside a condom, like a bag of something forgotten at the back of the fridge.
The dog nudged my sneaker again. His damp breath on my ankle mocked my fantasy. I frightened myself by wanting to kick him. His leaking nostrils and undisciplined tongue. His swollen testicles, knocking rudely back and forth against his belly.
After dinner, we took a cab, something foreigners were discouraged from doing. Arthur insisted the danger was over-blown. I didn’t necessarily agree, but I assumed this was how other people’s adventures came to be. The car was small and white, and there was a palm-sized hole in the floor. I watched the asphalt speeding by until I felt sick. It was surprisingly mesmerizing.
Arthur couldn’t understand the driver. It’s too fast, he told me. Too much slang. He pressed his forehead against the glove compartment in distress. I covered up the hole with my shoe, to stop myself from watching.
The cab dropped us off at a hotel I didn’t recognize as our own, and it became clear we didn’t have enough money for the fare. Arthur presented his credit card. The driver looked at the plastic, unimpressed. Arthur checked his pockets a second and third time. He said we were only a few dollars short, but he didn’t meet my eyes. Eventually, he got out of the car, assuring the driver he would be right back. I wondered if he noticed he was speaking English. He went into a nearby convenience store, and when he returned he was holding two loaves of bread and a liter of soda. He passed the items through the passenger side window. By then, he had collected himself and he said sorry in the right language.
Back in the hotel room, Arthur kissed me and held my face gently between his hands. He said flattering things that I couldn’t make myself believe. His fingers smelled bad, like coins. I didn’t usually remember to smell him.
I tried my best to think about sex, but instead I thought about the loaves of bread. I pictured the slices palmed into perfect balls, swallowed with Coke straight from the bottle. I pictured sandwiches with multiple meats and sandwiches with nothing but mayonnaise. I pictured them abandoned under the front seat: green then grey then black.
I turned away from Arthur. I apologized in a language I didn’t understand, mimicking his accent, and it made me feel a little better — a little less like myself.
One night — what became the last night — I arrived and Susan was not in her pajamas. She was wearing a floor length dress, which she held an inch above the floor, revealing a pair of white patent-leather shoes. The day nannies were clearly upset. They had already packed their bags. One of them summoned the elevator impatiently.
“It doesn’t come faster if you press it more,” Susan said. She sounded a little haughty, though mostly she sounded sad.
“You’re not the mother,” the nanny said.
“I’m not the mother,” Susan repeated, which was not a retort at all, and left us with nothing to say.
She dropped the hem of the dress, and it was only then that I realized it wasn’t something made for a child. It was a cocktail dress with no sleeves. The arm holes stretched down to Susan’s waist, so I could see her ribs and the elastic top of her underwear. She didn’t have a round stomach or a prominent belly button, as it seemed to me all children should.
The elevator arrived and the day nannies hesitated. Susan walked inside. The dress brushed the floor. The door began to close and she held out her arm, which was hardly more than a twig, to stop it. She reminded me of the trees that are delivered to especially desolate city blocks. Trunks that are more like branches, entire root systems bagged in burlap. Half a lifetime before they will cast any shade, before they finally wedge the sidewalk up and out of their way.
The elevator door didn’t stop when it encountered Susan’s arm, so she put her whole body in its way. She did this without any desperation. Twenty-five floors below her, unthinking metal on either side.
The day nannies dropped their bags and sprang to action. Susan didn’t sink into their arms when they grabbed her. Her body wasn’t built for absorbing into anyone else’s. She folded up neatly, like a chair that advertises how little space it will take up in the closet. The elevator sealed itself up, unaware of whether it was empty or full, buzzing faintly while it descended.
It seemed suddenly perverse that so many hours would pass before I was on the ground again. That all my nights took place at a dangerous height. The windows in my room were required by law to be unopenable. What kind of lives elevated themselves like this?
“Let me go,” Susan addressed the first nanny’s chin. “I’m already late.”
The nannies unbuckled Susan’s shoes instead of responding. Susan pedaled her feet in the air and kicked their wrists half-heartedly.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Don’t monitor my whereabouts.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do you know when you’ll be back?”
Susan licked her thumb and rubbed the patent leather ferociously. She began to cry.
“I don’t know,” she said. The shoes clattered onto the floor. She gulped for air while she cried. Her mouth seemed unjustly small.
“Breathe,” the first nanny said.
“Breeeeeeathe,” the second nanny said.
They took long, exemplary inhales.
“Do the thing,” the third nanny said.
Susan looked at her for a few seconds. Then she cradled her arms around an imaginary bundle and began to rock back and forth. She released a long, rattling breath, and stared resolutely at the nothing in her arms.
“Self soothing,” the first nanny whispered to me. She retrieved the bags that had been abandoned by the elevator.
“Consider your baby,” the second nanny said, patting her heart illustratively. She had impressive, maternal-seeming breasts. I wondered if my flat chest was an advertisement for my professional incompetence. Could everyone tell I lacked a spiritual compass? I wore flimsy things called bralettes. I had never disciplined my imagination.
“There’s Gatorade in the fridge.” The third nanny held open the elevator. Her forearm was exceptionally sturdy. Her veins looked like the stems of beautiful, weedy flowers. I imagined them coursing with blood and, implausibly, milk. “Re-hydrate after crying,” she said. Then the door closed and they were gone.
Susan was looking at me when I turned around. She shivered from exertion, but she wasn’t crying anymore.
“It isn’t real,” Susan said, holding out the baby.
I nodded, but I lifted it out of her arms anyway.
“I’ll stay in tonight,” she said. “I’ll go out tomorrow instead.”
I looked tenderly at the inside of my elbow.
“You’ll be back soon,” I said.
“Will you miss us while you’re gone?”
Susan circled her hands around my wrists. They were warm, just as they should have been. She wrenched my arms apart before I could stop her. I flinched. The thud of a baby’s soft skull. A jumble of pink brain sloshing back and forth.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, and we went to brush our teeth.
About the Author
Clare Sestanovich is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and graduated from the NYU Creative Writing Program. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, The Atlantic, and Joyland.
About Recommended Reading
Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. The Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes every Monday, is our home for flash and graphic narrative, and poetry. For access to year-round submissions, join our membership program on Drip, and follow Recommended Reading on Medium to get every issue straight to your feed. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.
“Make Believe” is published here by permission of the author, Clare Sestanovich. Copyright © Sestanovich 2018. All rights reserved.