by Jennifer Irwin
The listing described the apartment as a railroad track layout which I found out meant; I had to walk through my roommate’s bedroom to get to the bathroom. It was a fourth-floor walk-up, but the Upper East Side was where we wanted to be—safe and swanky.
Mads and I had planned on rooming together after graduation. She touted a trust fund, and my bank account had sixty-seven dollars left after I paid the deposit. She contributed more rent to get the proper bedroom. My mattress laid on the floor in the dining area. I bought a folding screen at a swap meet for a makeshift wall.
I landed a job in the creative department of an ad agency making sixteen grand a year and worked weekends as a coat checker at an upscale restaurant called Sam’s Café owned by a supermodel turned actress who never came around. Her name gave the place panache and patrons came because they thought they might lay eyes on her. Mads got hired by a faux jewelry company called Monet as a sales rep. She’d bring home bags of jewels for me to forage through.
“Take whatever you want,” she said, while I dragged my hands through the chains.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s Monday, free spaghetti at The Stumble Inn. Feel like checking it out?”
“Yes,” Mads said, kicking off her sensible pumps.
“That’s a cute dress,” I said while clipping chunky earrings onto my lobes.
“You can borrow anytime.” Mads turned for me to unzip. Her back was white and doughy. “Want to go to the Surf Club Saturday? They have a guest list only event, and I got us on the list.”
“For sure but I’ll have to meet you after I get off of coat check duty.”
“Dammit. I hate that you have a job on the weekends. It ruins everything.” She stomped her foot for effect.
“I get out at ten; nothing happens in New York before then. Wait for me; we don’t want to be the first ones anyway.”
“Good plan,” Mads said. She changed into dark pants, and a striped blouse then eased a red, grosgrain ribbon hairband onto her head.
I felt underdressed in my faded jeans and converse sneakers. On the way out the door, I threw on my brother’s letter jacket which I stole without asking. It made me feel like I might have been popular in high school.
Since Mads parents paid her rent, she spent her earnings on maintaining her platinum hair, manicures, new clothes, and taking cabs whenever she woke up late for work. Mornings were hectic for me because my hair was wiry and wild which required a bit more time. Mads could get ready in a flash and always appeared pulled together. The only way to tell she was stressed was light beading of sweat that formed on the bridge of her nose.
As the neater person, I took on the role of the cleaning lady. Mads covered the sink in specks of eyeshadow, blush, and tons of blonde hair. The toilet often had remnants of either barf or shit up under the rim so I invested in rubber gloves to tackle that matter. Rumors had been going around school that Mads was bulimic and with the suspicious specs, I was beginning to believe they might be legit.
We rarely competed for male attention. If a guy was attracted to her, more times than not, he wouldn’t look twice at me. Mads was generous with lending stuff but once she asked me for the shirt off my back while I was walking out the door to work. Part of me figured it irritated her that her clothes fit me more loosely. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t master the ethereal, helpless aura she exuded which guys seemed to love.
The bar was brimming with preppies wearing alligator shirts and faded khakis. I was adept at pretending to fit in but my last name, a solid giveaway that I wasn’t in the blueblood tribe. It screamed Italian with every imaginable vowel in the alphabet.
We found an open spot at the outer edge of the dimly lit bar. Mads had a twitch that crept up around guys. Her upper lip lifted on the right and made her smile crooked.
“Isn’t it your turn to buy?” Mads said, looking me up and down. She was a cheap one and damn that bugged me.
“Probably,” I said. Halfway to the bar, I remembered I’d bought the last beers on Saturday. I wedged between two people, leaned against the sticky, shellacked wood and attempted to command the bartender’s attention.
“How’s it going?” A dark-eyed guy with puffy lips and short black hair was on the barstool next to me. “Don’t I know you?” he asked.
“You do now,” I said. “I’m Alexandra; my friends call me Lexy.”
“Sexy, Lexy,” he said and laughed. “I’m Jamie.”
“Never heard that one before.” I turned toward the bartender and begged with my eyes.
“I’ll buy,” Jamie said. “I was a tool to say that.”
“Really?” I asked with too much enthusiasm. “Two Amstel Lights.” I swept my hand toward Mads who was chatting up a buff blonde.” My roommate is over there.”
“I’ll buy if you promise to come back after you give your friend her beer.” His smile nearly blinded me. I dragged my tongue over my teeth and prayed there weren’t any remnants of the popcorn I’d eaten at work. Jamie raised his arm and the bartender bee-lined. “Two Amstel Lights,” he said. “Put it on my tab.”
“Be right back.” I sashayed figuring he was checking out my ass. “Here,” I said handing the bottle over.
“Lexy, do you remember Ryan from the Hamptons this summer?” She loved playing the ‘do you know’ game. “Well, this is his cousin, Mike.”
“Cool,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” I shook his hand. I’d learned the hard way she freaked if you so much as smiled at a guy she was working over. “I’ll be at the bar if you need me.”
As I passed the red checkered, free pasta table, my stomach rumbled. I piled a plate with noodles with two garlic bread pieces teetering on the edge. As I eased onto the barstool, the bread bounced to the floor.
“Whoops,” I said. My face heated.
“I’ll grab more,” he said. “I was going to eat anyway.” He stood and turned. “I love a girl who can eat.”
Jamie returned with two plates. One for his pasta and one piled with bread.
“Are you from the city?” I asked, another beer miraculously appeared in front of me.
“I’m from Columbus,” he said. “Ohio.” He chewed with his mouth closed which I liked. His arm brushed against mine, and my stomach tingled. “I’m in a training program at Merrill Lynch.” He swept a napkin over his lips. “It’s a great opportunity but a real grind.”
After we finished eating, I glanced at my watch.
“I’m going to head home,” I said.
“Me too. Wall Street beckons early.” He smiled. An awkward moment dangled in the air.
“Can I get your number?” he asked as he signed the charge slip. I jotted my digits on a napkin which he slipped it in his pocket. We edged away from the bar and I headed toward Mads while he engaged in a few bro hugs and back slaps on his way out. “I’ll meet you at home,” I said in passing so not to give her a chance to beg. As I walked the few blocks home, a sense of hope tingled through my body.
The next morning, I tugged my underpants out from my butt cheek as I hovered over the coffee maker waiting for it to brew.
I swung around. A guy approached from the bedroom. The exact guy Mads had been talking to at the bar. I yanked my shirt over my crotch and pressed against the edge of the Formica.
“Mike,” he said. “We met last night.” He started opening cabinets until he found a mug. “Is it brewed yet? I gotta roll.”
“Hey.” Miss ethereal floated in wearing a white satin negligée. I’d never seen anyone wear such fancy sleeping garments until I met Mads. As if there wasn’t a man lurking in our kitchen, she pulled a mug from the cabinet and poured herself some coffee. Mike wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
“Fun night,” he said. “Thanks for having me.” He took a swig of black coffee, dumped the rest in the sink and strolled out the door.
“What the hell?” I said with my mouth agape.
“That’s what happens when you leave me alone in a bar,” she said as though it was my fault. “He had the biggest sausage. I’m so sore.”
A native New Yorker and captivating storyteller with a flair for embellishment, Jennifer Irwin currently resides in Los Angeles with two cats, a dog, and her boyfriend. After earning her BA in Cinema from Denison University, she worked in advertising and marketing raised three boys, and ultimately became a certified Pilates instructor. While she has written screenplays and short stories since her college days, A Dress the Color of the Sky is her first novel.