The City Can’t Replace Her Best Friend
"Julia" from THE SORROWS OF OTHERS by Ada Zhang, recommended by Sarah Thankam Mathews
Introduction by Sarah Thankam Mathews
Though I try to be generous in most areas of my life, in some of the quieter recesses of my heart I indulge the joys of being a hater. Specifically, I am curmudgeonly regarding the matter of actually great fiction. So much contemporary literary fiction! The vast majority of it competent, a lot of it quite good, so little of it truly beautiful or memorable or alive. Maybe you, privately or not, feel this way too. I was a thirsty traveler in the desert when I was sent Ada Zhang’s short story collection, The Sorrows of Others. I glanced at the blurbs before reading. Dazzling, luminous, profound . . . okay, sure.
But it was all true; in fact, I came to the end of Sorrows feeling the book had not been praised enough. The Sorrows of Others is a pristine and lovingly carved jewel box of a collection, set in China and America in the post-Cultural Revolution decades. Zhang, a winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, writes with the care and insight, craftmanship and wisdom, of an artist more than twice her age.
In “Julia,” a thirty-two-year-old woman named Esther embarks upon leaving New York City after a ten-year stay. In the process of bidding her old haunts goodbye in a manner at once self-conscious, sentimental, and controlled, she collides with two college-aged women coming out of the bodega who laugh at her reflexive apology. Staring after their departing forms, she recognizes something “horrible and familiar” in how they move together. And then, we travel back in time to the center of this story, the terrible, transformative bestfriendship—and eventually, rupture—between Esther and Julia. We learn about the break, see how these two young women formed each other, trace how they fell apart.
Zhang’s writing is careful, faceted, gleaming in its insight and meticulous observation, its beautiful sentences. But it is also radiant, softly glowing as if lit from within. Zhang loves her characters and also sees them with a mercilessly honest eye.
Brandon Taylor [former editor of Recommended Reading] wrote, in one of the more beautiful essays on the form I’ve ever read, that a short story is not a literary snack to a novel’s more substantial meal, or a good “short read,” but a system of caves “into which you can shout one note and from which emerges eerie, ghostly echoes that both converge upon and diverge from that first, perfect sound.” That’s what this story accomplishes, what Zhang’s slim, near-perfect collection does as a whole. You should acquire it wherever you choose to acquire books these days, and you should start with “Julia,” below. Let me get out of your way.
– Sarah Thankam Mathews
Author of All This Could Be Different
The City Can’t Replace Her Best Friend
Julia by Ada Zhang
When she was twenty-two she used to spend what little money she could have saved on hardcover books, lattes, and croissants. She read in cafés alone and anonymous, with no reason except to offer the world a glimpse of her. Ten years later, she was leaving and decided to revisit all her old haunts, thinking she could pack up the years the way she had packed up her things: taking them out of context and rearranging them so they fit compactly together. Outside a smoothie shop, she recited her usual in her head. The owner was a Jamaican man; he smiled at her through the window, and she waved. It occurred to her that he had no idea she was saying goodbye.
This sentimentality, purposefully spurred, waned quickly, almost instantly. She’d moved so many times in New York, across different boroughs, that the effect of leaving had all but worn off, and although her nostalgia was premature, it was the only way she could ensure this chapter would close with a proper sense of what had taken place. Not paying attention, she almost knocked heads with two girls coming out of a bodega. They stumbled onto the street, all limbs and hair, grasping each other. They were young women, upon closer inspection. College-age, about. Esther remembered what that had been like.
“Whoops!” she chirped, before pulling back and saying sorry.
The taller one shot her friend a furtive look, then laughed in Esther’s face. She hooked her elbow to her friend’s arm, and the two of them skipped down the street. Their hair clipped after them.
There was something horrible and familiar about that tall one, Esther thought, not moving from where she was, the way she’d dragged her friend away firmly yet delicately, like how a princess might usher her favorite servant when there was something urgent and secret they needed to discuss. She hadn’t gotten a good look at the friend, and now she wished she had. She peered down the street where they had turned, but they were gone.
Back in Texas, Esther had met Julia through Rooney, a mutual friend and Esther’s first roommate. They had remained distant for all of freshman year. They grew close while Julia was subletting Rooney’s room for the summer.
“I didn’t think you had depth,” Julia said to Esther one night while they were lying on the carpet in the living room, staring mindlessly at the ceiling. Their summer break was coming to an end. In a week, Rooney would return to campus and Julia would return to her dorm. They had just smoked some weed and torn through a family-size bag of tortilla chips, leaving shards at the very bottom.
“You smile a lot. I didn’t think someone so cheerful could be smart.”
Despite her nonchalance, it was not a topic that had been raised before. The kitchen light was on, but otherwise the living room was dark. The fibers of the carpet pricked the back of Esther’s neck and shoulders. She squirmed to allay the itching.
“By that logic,” she ventured, “I should have thought you were a genius.”
“And I’m not?” said Julia.
Esther turned to face her, but Julia stayed looking up.
“I think I just thought you were a bitch.”
Julia laughed. Her chest jumped. “Well I was wrong. You’re funny.”
“I could be funny and dumb,” Esther offered.
It had been a habit of hers, softening her viewpoint with self-deprecation.
Julia said no and made a comment about humor and intelligence. After that, they fell asleep on the floor.
Back in her almost-empty apartment, Esther poured herself a drink. Eight years had passed since she’d last seen Julia, in which time Esther had built a life for herself out of the virtues that Julia had imparted. The last she’d heard from Julia, she was getting married. The invitation came four months after their disastrous time in New York, after which they’d stopped speaking. She had flipped the embossed card back and forth, looking for a scribbled apology, or a note. She checked the envelope as well and found nothing. Julia & John invite you to their wedding was all it said, along with a date and location. Merriment to follow. Appalled at first, Esther was then sad, then fuming. She’d cut the invitation to pieces using scissors; the paper was too strong to tear.
On the couch, she brought her whiskey to her lips before remembering to raise it to the light. It delighted her that the ice was chiseled and completely clear, not a streak of cloudiness. The ice clinked liltingly as she swirled the glass. Now she sipped, savoring the bitterness on her tongue followed by a cold sting in the sides of her mouth. She’d boiled the water first, then added it to the tray.
Fancy ice; overnight oats made with meticulous spoonfuls of nuts and berries, making her feel like she was some highly evolved squirrel. She’d come to appreciate these rituals, their patterning and repetition securing dependable results, adding predictability and assurance to her days. She could have her overnight oats anywhere, in Houston, where she was from, or in Nashville, where she was moving soon to oversee the ancillary paper products line for a small, vaguely Christian publisher. Not books, but book-adjacent, she’d told friends when they asked why she was leaving. Back to her Southern roots! she joked. Her friends with a sense of humor had all left in the years preceding. The ones who remained stared at her with long faces. When they asked what she would miss most about New York, she said the ubiquity of art, how it could be found on the streets and in museums, in the people and the ways they chose to live. She knew this was the answer they were seeking, the one that assuaged the precarious matter of continuing in New York, which was brought into question every time another person chose to leave. Art was what she loved about the city, what everyone loved, but it wasn’t what she would miss. She would miss the drugstores that punctuated every block, some of them converted from beautiful old buildings, giving them that stumbleupon quality she’d have to do without in a place like Nashville, where people drove cars and drugstores were treated more respectfully as destinations. After work, or before a night ended, the rows of products provided a sense of order, filled with latent possibility. The colors—condoms, toothpaste, Zyrtec, folic acid—were brighter, more abrasive under white overhead lights. She loved going in and discovering a need she hadn’t known was there. It felt good going home not empty-handed.
After her father died, two years after she and Julia had fallen out, she would walk twice down every aisle, finding more and more things to buy. Her grief had made her angry. The intensity of the emotion brought Julia to mind with a searing vengeance, as though the reaction she should have had to their friendship ending had been delayed, or could only be expressed in light of another, more straightforward tragedy. She thought about it but in the end couldn’t bring herself to call.
That was six years ago. When you want someone’s pity, her mother used to say, that’s when you’ve lost all self-respect. Her mother had hated being a widow and remarried shortly after burying Esther’s father. Before Julia, Esther was like a baby bird displaced from her nest. This was how she’d thought of herself, going as far as to specify her plumage—dark purple, an attractive color that did not announce itself too loudly. Growing up, she chirped pleasantly, incessantly, at her peers, thinking that by appearing helpless she might earn people’s trust. Julia was the one who’d scooped her up and taken her home, fed her nutrients through a dropper, so that by the time Esther’s father died she was strong enough to fend for herself, even without Julia. She had kept her heartaches (there were two) private, giving herself permission to party and drink and work as much as she needed while discussing how she felt with no one, not even Bobby, who’d been her closest friend after Julia and the person she’d hurt the most by turning inwardly morose, outwardly exhaustive.
What was so bad about wanting to be pitied? She was reminded she owed her mother a call. Being adored—wasn’t that basically the same thing?
That summer, they had stayed up late talking in Esther’s room or Julia’s, which was technically Rooney’s room, a fact they frequently overlooked. Their similarities—like that they were both children of immigrants, Esther’s parents Chinese, Julia’s Bulgarian—were unspectacular, looking back, but had felt crucial in a phase when they were searching for themselves in others. Their black hair looked identical but turned different shades under the sun. They played word games. “What a good dog,” one person would say. Then they took turns. “What a kind dog.” “What a beneficent dog.” And so on until they reached something absurd—“What a priestly dog!”
They’d keel over with laughter, in the grocery store, in the library’s all-quiet section, reveling in dirty looks from strangers, even better if the looks came from people they knew. They’d both been the children of bad marriages.
“Cowards,” Julia had said, about both sets of parents when it came up that neither could go through with divorce. “Adults are full of crap.”
Before Julia, Esther never felt qualified to make judgments like these on her own.
Esther shared her loneliness as an only child.
“The fantasy of a companion became my companion,” she tried to explain one afternoon. They were in Julia’s room, again on the floor. There was a bed, Rooney’s bed, and a nightstand on which they’d set their melting iced coffees. It was an old apartment building, poorly maintained, full of cracks and crevices where dirt could hide. The daylight illuminated small particles in the air. “I had a friend group in high school, but it always bothered me that they didn’t like me for the same reasons I liked myself. When I was twelve, I had a miniature plastic rocking horse that I brought with me everywhere. I don’t even remember how I got it, but I spoke to it in the shower and before bed and in the mornings after I just woke up. That’s sort of how it feels now when I like someone.” She meant like someone as in a crush. As in a boy. Boys were what they talked about when they weren’t bringing up their childhoods. “I get obsessed. I imagine us being in constant communication and run the risk of feeling closer to them than they feel to me, but that doesn’t even matter in the end, because it’s the fantasy that sustains me.” Julia was listening.
“It’s pathetic,” Esther said, turning away. “I know.”
Julia folded Esther’s hand and placed it over her—Julia’s— heart.
When the semester started, Rooney took her room back, but they found it increasingly difficult to be apart and burdensome to be together when others were around, so in the spring they found their own apartment. A week before the move, Esther was in her room, eating grapes and typing a paper. Most of her things were in boxes. Rooney entered without knocking.
“You could have at least had a conversation with me,” she said, her voice sounding tattered. “How do you think it makes me feel, being deserted in my own home? You’re so exclusive when you’re with her.” She shifted her weight and ended up back in her original stance. “Always whispering and giggling about nothing.”
Esther felt her nostrils tighten. She couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed for herself or for Rooney, who was waving her heart like a flag in front of Esther’s face. It was true they hadn’t included Rooney in any of the recent changes. “What was that?” Rooney would ask whenever she caught on to one of their games. “Nothing nothing,” came their reply, as they strained to look in opposite directions. When Julia slept over now, as a guest, it was always in Esther’s bed. In the mornings they would walk to the Shipley’s across the street and order a donut each plus a dozen holes to share. It never occurred to them to pick up something for Rooney.
“You know what Julia used to say about you? She said you seemed desperate, that people only like you because you reek of insecurity. I wasn’t going to tell you, but it’s like you’ve forgotten that I exist, you and her both. You’re both cunts.”
Rooney burst into tears. Esther’s impulse was to get up and apologize, but instead she thought what Julia would do, and she sat there. She watched Rooney cry.
“It’s not like you don’t have other friends,” she said, once Rooney was depleted to hiccups.
“Oh, fuck you,” said Rooney, before turning and slamming the door.
On the itinerary for Sunday, Esther’s last, was paying a visit to her very first apartment. She found a crumpled sundress in a box labeled Give Away. She put it on and noticed tiny fibers stuck to the cheap polyester. Last night, thoughts of Julia had kept her awake, threatening the cheerful accord she was determined to leave the city with, her time here like a stone she’d been polishing.
Getting off the bus, she felt self-conscious. There was some fear, an uncanniness, that the girls from yesterday were going to appear, Julia’s young doppelgänger making fun of her about her dress that kept riding up at the waist and because what she was doing, her committed wistfulness to what she was doing, was a cliché. She knew it was, but so was coming here in one’s twenties from whatever sad hometown one wished to escape. Everyone who left the city arrived at the same conclusion: the real alternative life was in the suburbs, where no one deluded themselves into believing a harder life was somehow more worthwhile. Esther smiled. She scooped her hair to one side of her neck, giving the other side to the breeze. Just those girls wait and see.
With graduation looming, they each applied for jobs in New York. It was Esther who got lucky, receiving an offer from an academic publishing house while Julia accepted a job nearby, thinking she would use it to build her résumé. For a while after Esther moved, they stayed talking every night.
“Can you imagine what it’ll be like when we’re both living there?” Julia said on the phone. From the sound of her voice, Esther could tell she was lying on her stomach.
Julia was a lab tech at a small private university not far from where they’d gone to school. The pay was low, lower than what Esther expected for someone who’d double majored in science, and the work was lonesome, Julia had mentioned more than once. She had only one coworker. But this was only temporary, they both believed. There was a life together waiting for them.
“You’ll be doing research at Columbia or NYU,” Esther said. “I’ll be editing books at one of the big trade houses. We’ll grab bagels, walk around Central Park.”
Julia squealed, even though neither of them liked bagels that much, and it turned out Central Park was much harder to get to than a drugstore, especially when home was in an outer borough.
One Sunday, Julia called in the middle of the night, crying. Esther asked what was wrong and felt uplifted to be the one asking.
The guy Julia had been seeing had just broken up with her in an email.
“I’m particular, he wrote,” said Julia, still catching her breath. “I rearranged the furniture in his house, which apparently upset him, though he never told me. I never would have done that if I had known.”
“You wouldn’t have?” Esther asked.
“No,” said Julia.
“What setup did he have before?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I think it matters if you made an improvement.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Julia snapped. “Stop trying to prove how clever you are! It’s not going to bring my relationship back!”
“Sorry,” Julia said, when Esther was silent. “I don’t mean to yell.” She spoke softer now but still with an edge. “I’m heartbroken and not myself. Or maybe I’m exactly myself. Maybe that’s why Steven dumped me. Because I’m a total bitch.”
She spoke as though testing the statement out, or to see what Esther would say. But Julia was a bitch, and so was Esther. Since when had they cared? A minute passed, until she felt she’d missed her chance to say “No, no, of course not.” Then Julia hung up.
It had started to rain. Esther considered buying an umbrella but was enjoying the sporadic drops on her head and arms, like tiny reassuring pats. She walked down a street of warehouses and storage facilities, turning left at a park on Bedford. The apartment was only a few blocks away, according to her phone GPS, but she couldn’t tell if the setting was familiar. The flowering pear trees had shed their petals so that from a distance, it was as though the sidewalk were coated in a fine white powder. The wet petals gave off a sweet then rancid scent as Esther stepped on them.
A car sped past. She kicked a pebble onto the road. The wedding invitation had seemed like a jab in true Julia fashion, sharp and sly—Merriment to follow—but what if Esther had been wrong? What if the invitation was the apology? Then she’d rejected it. Even now, when someone, usually another woman, told Esther she was funny or intimidating, or mean, she knew it was Julia they were talking about, Julia they respected and feared. It always made her proud. She nearly tripped over a gap in the pavement.
Esther had just been promoted to associate editor when Julia visited. While her day-to-day was still mostly the same— scheduling, paperwork—she made slightly more money than before, as far as publishing salaries were concerned. Through Bobby, the boy she was seeing casually, she found freelance gigs writing music reviews, which got her free tickets to festivals and shows. Esther named these accomplishments and others as they climbed the bright spiraling halls of the Guggenheim.
Julia only nodded or said, “Nice.” She didn’t seem interested in the art either, shifting quickly from one painting to the next, the way one looks at cars for sale on the side of the road—curious one moment, the next moment totally out of mind. On the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, the first and last time Esther would make the trip, she asked about John, Julia’s then new boyfriend. Julia gave mostly one-word answers.
It felt like making small talk. Esther rambled on, annoying herself, dredging up old memories in the likelihood that something would stir Julia to engage.
There was a game they had played in college, called Alcoholic or Hemingway. Julia had invented it, a way of dividing boys into two groups, the posers and the intellectuals.
In front of a Chagall, Julia shook her head.
“Why did we play that game?”
“What do you mean why?”
“I mean what was it about?”
The game was about who was worthy of their attention and who wasn’t. Esther said as much to Julia in those words, not really believing that she’d forgotten.
“Why were we so judgmental? What right did we have? If the genders were reversed, that game would be offensive,” said Julia. “We’d be dicks if anyone ever found out.”
Technically, they would be misogynists, but the genders weren’t reversed. The parity was the point, she had thought. She asked Julia if everything was okay.
There was something robotic in the way Julia turned to face her, her eyes and her head moving along one axis.
“What, because I’m not in the mood to reminisce?”
Julia ascended the staircase, but Esther stayed looking at another painting. She’d assumed it was another Chagall based on the primary colors, but it turned out to be the work of another artist entirely.
The next day, she decided to match Julia’s sullenness, thinking that doing so would wear Julia to her senses. They couldn’t both suffer the silent treatment. Then on the Brooklyn Bridge, Julia told Esther she quit her job, and Esther asked why but was too relieved in the moment to care. Julia had been keeping a secret. Now it was out.
“I’m taking coding classes and waiting tables in the interim.”
“But you love chemistry,” said Esther. “That’s your passion.”
“Yeah, well, being a scientist is cute, but it’s not going to pay the bills.”
Julia stared out at the East River. She tucked some hair behind her ear, uselessly; the wind just tossed it up again.
“I’m surrounded by well-off people. John’s an attorney. John’s friends are attorneys.”
“Everyone in Texas can’t be an attorney.”
“They’ve bought houses,” said Julia. “They vacation to nice places.”
“So? They’re older than us.”
“How old do you think they are? How young do you think we are?”
John was twenty-eight. They were twenty-four. Behind them a bike bell rang, and someone yelled, “Shit motherfucker!” Diamond flecks sprang off the water’s surface.
“So they drown in legalese most of their lives so they can take a trip to Tulum every few months. Who cares?”
Julia straightened, and Esther braced herself. Then Julia said, “Can’t you just be happy for me?”
“Jules. I’m sorry. I am.” She was. “I just don’t think it’s useful to make comparisons, that’s all. You’re not inferior to those people.”
“People like my boyfriend.”
Esther was having trouble finding the right footing for the point she was trying to make.
“Yes, like John. There’s nothing wrong with him or his friends, but there’s nothing wrong with you or me either. We have our ambitions. We’re just starting out. We still have so much time.”
Julia’s hair was everywhere, licking her face, her shoulders, while the rest of her remained motionless.
“It’s called computer science, isn’t it? You’ll still be a scientist.”
It was a stupid joke, and Julia didn’t laugh. They walked the last half of the bridge in silence.
They were polite to each other that night in the apartment, saying “Excuse me” and “Thank you” as they scooted around each other in the cramped space made even smaller by the fabrics and other textiles that draped from the walls and coat racks. This was Esther’s first apartment. Esther’s roommate worked in fashion and had agreed, for fifty bucks, to stay somewhere else that weekend so Julia could have her room. Rooney appeared in Esther’s thoughts for the first time in a long time that night, given the superficial parallels between then and now: an apartment, a phantom third person, a summer.
After they watched a movie, Julia announced she was going to bed. In her room, Esther crawled out the window onto the fire escape and lit a cigarette, a habit she’d picked up from Bobby. She had planned on telling Julia about it but now wasn’t so sure. Her building was next to a KFC. It was ugly from the front, but the back faced the backs of other buildings, row homes and low rises, separated by patchy, overgrown yards, many of them filled with junk. Everyone on the block seemed to have the same idea about blinds, that they were unnecessary when windows didn’t peer onto the street.
So far, without even trying, she’d seen a Saint Bernard poking its snout out from one of those protruding window guards. There were two kids, brothers, Esther assumed, who also had the impulse to spy, their eyes turning into four black holes where they made hand binoculars against the glass. She felt bad for them, that while she could see them they couldn’t see her. She made sure of it by turning off all the lights. One time, she saw a woman chopping carrots with small, careful motions and felt moved by the task, the slowness of it and the patience that it required. It was the kind of thing she would have told Julia before, what she saw and how it made her feel.
The night was dry and still. Ambient sounds of the city drifted to her ears, car alarms and reggaeton cut by an occasional human voice. She took a drag from her cigarette and wondered if those children could see the small ember pulsing, like a message in the dark.
The next day, their last before Julia flew back, they wanted to try a pizza spot that had gotten rave reviews on the Upper West Side. Directions had said it would be right next to the station, but there was no sign for pizza when they got off the train, even after they had circled the block. A group of guys was huddled near the station stairwell, standing in such a way as to appear aware of their collective maleness, posturing rigidly with hunched backs, hands inside pockets, not too close to each other.
“They said we got off a stop early,” Esther said to Julia, who’d hung back. “It’s just a fifteen-minute walk down Amsterdam. They invited us to get a drink with them just now.” Esther rolled her eyes. “Apparently even a look in their direction counts as flirting.”
Julia shrugged. “It sounds like they were just trying to be nice.”
For some reason, it was this that did Esther in, this generous read on a circumstance involving strangers.
She felt like a child, like she had just been scolded in public.
Like a child she lashed out. “What’s wrong?”
Julia said nothing, her eyes darting from side to side.
“Why have you been so depressed on this trip, and why are you acting like we didn’t used to shit on guys all the time? What am I missing?”
They stood blinking in each other’s faces.
“I’m sorry I’ve been distant,” Julia said at last, looking away. “I know how much this trip means to you, to us, but to be honest, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I’m really busy right now trying to change my life. You can understand how stressful that is.”
It was such an open and honest response that Esther didn’t know what to say. She was about to say never mind and let it go, when Julia cut her off.
“But it’s not like you haven’t been difficult. You go on about your plans, your plans, where your life’s headed. Meanwhile it’s like you’re stuck in college. You talk about those years like they were the best of our lives, when they weren’t. At least I hope they aren’t. I don’t like who I was back then, always looking down on people, and I’m trying to be different now, but you won’t let me. Sometimes I think you don’t want me to have friends besides you. In college, you kept me separate from the other groups you were part of. And I know it’s not all your fault. I know I’m to blame for acting like I was above it all, but deep down I wanted to be included. I think you knew that but liked keeping me apart.”
Esther hadn’t known that Julia wished to be included. She could admit she enjoyed having Julia all to herself, but she’d never thought of it as keeping her apart. They had been apart together.
“After college, you never seemed that interested in my life.”
“That’s not fair,” Esther said. “All those times we fantasized about making our lives here, and now here we are, and you’ve been nothing but sour.”
“How come you never asked about Steven? You were so mean about him when we broke up.”
Esther recalled the furniture. “Are you defending the person who broke your heart?”
A taxi groaned, bouncing over the potholed street. It was true she hadn’t thought Steven was anything special from what Julia had told her. She had labeled him an Alcoholic but had done the same to her own sweet Bobby, whom she would realize she loved only after he moved on from her. She thought the same of all men. They hadn’t known when they started the game that Hemingway himself was an alcoholic. The irony only made the game more poignant, proving not one of them was worthy.
“I haven’t said much about John because I know you’ll judge him. You’ll write him off as simple. Meanwhile your thing, whatever it is, with Bobby—you might think it’s fun leading him on, but to me it just sounds childish.”
A few people happened to catch Esther’s gaze as they walked by. Afterward they walked faster.
“I reached out to Rooney a few weeks ago,” said Julia. “I called her, and told her I was sorry for treating her the way we did. She was our friend. She introduced us to each other, and we discarded her. Why? Why did we do that?”
She started to cry, but not like she had on the phone following the breakup with Steven. This was measured, almost mannered, hardly any sound.
“We were nineteen,” Esther said quietly. What she really thought was that in order to solidify their friendship, it had been necessary to cut ties that had become secondary.
“What did Rooney say?”
“She’s married and lives in Dallas now. She thanked me for the apology and said we should get coffee if I’m ever in town. She invited you as well, but I told her you left Texas.”
Julia dabbed below her eyes using her wrists. Esther wanted to scream. She’d been tricked. She was being held accountable to terms she never agreed to, and now, as usual, Julia was getting her way. She was judging her. For all her talk of wanting to be different, she was still the same mean girl she always was, only now the rules had changed. She had changed them.
“Have fun with your new best friend I guess,” Esther said. “You and Rooney and your attorney husbands can get together in your big houses to talk about the latest drama in the PTA.”
Julia scoffed, a flash of her old self. “This is what I mean, see?” she said. “You think that kind of life is beneath you.”
She looked up at the sky, and without thinking Esther did the same. The clouds between buildings were faint wisps, as though done in a flick of a painter’s brush. She recalled waking up next to Julia on the floor of the apartment they had shared that first summer. Her neck had been stiff for days afterward.
“At some point we have to grow up. You can put it off for as long as you want, but at some point it’s going to happen.”
“What about New York then?” Esther asked. Later, she would be embarrassed to have been clinging to an idea of a future that Julia had clearly abandoned. “Will you be looking for jobs here when it’s time?”
Julia opened her mouth right as a train was pulling into the station. The ground shook beneath them. The pummeling grew gradually louder.
“You’re right,” Esther said, before she could change her mind. “I was ashamed of you. It’s why I never included you with the others.”
She was lying. Julia had always been astute, but it turned out she was not ruthless. It was Esther who could follow a judgment to its end. This meant she would be alone again.
“Maybe it’s best if we forget we were ever friends.”
She didn’t wait to see Julia’s reaction before looping around and down to catch the subway. At the apartment, she left Julia’s things in the hallway on the landing.
The KFC was gone. A café had replaced it. It was a nice day, hot but not as humid as it had been. Families were out. A man sat at a table by himself and ate a sandwich with perfect posture.
The street was quieter. The building’s edifice, which she once found old and hideous, looked quaint now beside the café, with its Renaissance Revival flourishes carved out of limestone, contrasting with faded brick.
She remembered the red lit-up awning from when she used to walk under it to get home. At night the light was so bright, teenagers set up a living area underneath, complete with chairs and a complicated sound system.
After leaving Julia’s things, she’d climbed out to the fire escape but left every single light in the apartment on, so that Julia would know she was home. Julia would ring the bell, and Esther would open the door. That was how she pictured it. They would both say sorry.
It got later, and darker, until the apartment was like a fishbowl. Anyone on that back-facing block would have had a clear view into her room, which still had that drab flavor of a college dorm. There was a bed, a bulletin board above it, holding pictures of her and Julia and little notes they’d written one another over the years, trimmed in hearts and stars.
She dismantled it methodically, thinking about that woman cutting carrots as she set each item carefully on her desk, catching a thumbtack before it rolled away, stacking photos with other photos, scraps of paper with other scraps of paper—not sure yet what she would do with it all. Those kids with their hand binoculars would get a show tonight, or maybe someone else was in the mood to watch. They might wonder what she was doing, and under their supervision she would feel like she did with Julia, how she’d felt with Bobby in the rare, brief moments when she let herself be loved by him. How she’d felt as a child when her father pushed her on the swing. She laughed louder and more high-pitched when she saw what pleasure it gave him to see her happy. In front of someone else, one comes alive.