________I used to know which apartment was hers, and when we walked down the avenue, I’d crane my neck for Jackie O. When I’m in Manhattan now, and walking on certain streets, I still feel the buzz of compressed nerves in my brain and a certain type of euphoria: half spinal, half a sweet spot I hold in my heart for the sort of little girl I was. I wanted to wear silky pink socks under shining black leather shoes, and I liked the feeling of long handled ice cream spoons in sundae glasses.
________My daughter isn’t that sort of girl, and we don’t normally live in that sort of place. When everyone else was doing it, we moved to the suburbs too, and Rachel doesn’t remember living in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, and toddling under the quiet awnings, finding shade on Park Avenue on the way back from watching toy sailboats list in the shadows of the pond. We moved in the fall after the hot summer when she learned to walk and I pressed damp cloths into the folds of her baby fat because our apartment building was too old to support air conditioning. I said goodbye to that life that I had wanted for her, the Sundays at the Met and the idea of shopping at boutiques with names like Chloe, but spelled with too many accents over vowels. But I thought it was possible that Rachel might hold the imprint of this life, like the faint marks of sparrow feet on wet concrete, somewhere in her mind.
________When we moved to Connecticut, Rachel became a toddler who liked to play at the edges of the lawn, the interstices between the fences and the garbage bins, instead of on the lush green lawn where I had laid a quilt and the tea set I had loved from my own childhood. That never caught her attention, so I’d lure her back out of the brambles with crackers and ice pops. She’d come back with beetles on her palm or a shed snakeskin as a trophy. I’d remove the mud from her white sandals with a toothbrush after she had gone to sleep. When I signed her up for dance class, she countered it with sessions at the local nature preserve, where she was the fearless first one in her group to handle salamanders. She came home with nutshells in her pockets.
________Oh, she was wonderful at dancing too. She was as confident about her body on the boards of a stage as she was when seeking bats on a night hike. She just didn’t care about the dancing. Not even after I took her to see the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center and, in the twilight before the show, knelt next to her on the curb and pointed out how you always knew who the dancers were in the crosswalks near Julliard and Lincoln Center: They seem to float, see? I said. She just nodded, humoring me.
________Rachel is fifteen now, and keeps her hair cropped and her tee-shirts boxy and black, and it takes everything in me to stop myself from coming at her with barrettes and styling mousse and a skirt or at least a fitted shirt. She doesn’t humor me anymore. I don’t mind that she’s gay or bi or whatever, I say, I just want her to look her best. Eliot turns the television up. Walking clichés, both of us.
________Only, Rachel hears me this time, because our house is too small, because we bought one that seemed big to us, coming from apartment living, but it’s not, really.
________“Why do you only ever care what I look like?” she says. Her rage (justified for once) is turned up so high that it comes out of her in the kind of roar she used to use as a toddler, when she couldn’t get her way.
________I get up from the chair I’m sitting in and I turn to her, half feeling justified and half feeling mortified, and half feeling angry at Eliot (which is unjustified, because all he’s doing is sitting there, but maybe that’s why I’m angry).
________“I’m sorry if that’s the impression that you have, but it’s not true,” I say. Or at least, I think, it’s only partly true.
________“Then just quit talking about it, okay?” she says. “I’m sick to death of you talking about it. Go buy yourself some fucking boots if you care about fashion. Leave me out of it.” I wait, and let the roar settle into the dark corners of the room. We chose dark wood and dark carpets and dark furniture. It’s a little creepy here, I realize, suddenly, of my own house. Why did we take ourselves so seriously? In the fall I’ll paint the walls pastel.
________“You’re right, Rachel. I’m sorry.” But I can see she doesn’t believe me and honestly, I don’t believe myself. I’m not quite sorry that I feel this way; I’m just sorry she overheard me. Rachel goes to her room to do whatever it is that she does in there all the time. Ten minutes pass in silence, Eliot watching television with mute sympathy, at least, rather than commentary. I watch the shadows on the wall.
________“Would you like some tea?” Eliot says. I don’t respond. We’re too polite now, too kind, to each other. It’s how we get through days like this with Rachel being either actively or passively angry at both of us, usually me, though Eliot has said he mostly feels irrelevant to her, and that is worse, but I’m not sure.
________This is what really worries me about Rachel—It isn’t her choice of style or her desire to live as if she was raised by wolves—it’s that she hasn’t learned or refuses to learn that now, still, the world treats all women (any women) like flight attendants, and the world will (for the foreseeable future) expect a smile. Since Rachel hasn’t ever got a smile at the ready, she will be penalized and punished and overlooked. I wish that wasn’t what I was most afraid of, but it is.
________She’s already being punished for it. She hasn’t had a friend come over for three or four years. She never speaks about anyone at school besides a boy who I know only because he seems to hang out on the curb at the local pharmacy, playing guitar or painting his nails. They don’t seem to spend any time together outside of school, anyway.
________I remember, at fifteen, having so many friends that when they’d come over to the apartment, my parents would retreat to their bedroom, waiting for the invasion to end. We’d get ready for the school dance and blow circuits in the bathroom with our hair dryers and straightening irons, sending my father down to the basement of the building multiple times to switch fuses back on. The smell of lipstick and nervous sweat made the air sweet like backstage before a play. When I’d come home from the dances I could always still detect the tribal scent of teased hair and go to sleep in the comfort of that sense of belonging, no matter how the dance had gone. We liked to dance and we liked that that didn’t necessarily mean that we had to be poor students, or that we didn’t care about going to college, as it had meant for our mothers, who had only had or and not and. I never imagined I’d have a daughter who would want a different kind of or, after all.
________It’s not really the shapeless shirts that scare me about Rachel, it’s this time alone. I no longer speak to the mothers of her classmates, because I can see their pity when they speak to me at the train station and the grocery store. And how is Rachel? They ask, with smug smiles. I love how independent she is. But independent is a euphemism for a lot of other things and so help me, I wish them the tougher roads when they say this. I wish shocking teen pregnancies on their daughters; I wish on those girls slight cases of bulimia, or slight dependencies on heroin, or at least a season of mono. If their daughters are going to be so normal, I wish them the normal pitfalls, and I feel vile and don’t care.
________Later that week after the rage, after days of deep silences, Eliot turns away from the baseball game and suggests the summer in Manhattan, when everyone is away and we can swap homes with the friends of friends, professors who think we live in the woods, because our quarter-acre is visited by deer at dusk.
________“Really?” I say. This is the first time Eliot has been proactive about anything in a good long time. Though maybe he wasn’t searching for answers. Maybe one just landed in his lap. But still, it’s nice to see that he’s not letting Rachel be only my problem, which she has been for quite some time. Maybe Manhattan will have some power over her that I don’t, due to some sleeper cells of steely grace that the borough embedded in her before she was old enough to know so much about what she wanted, so certain is she that what she wants and what I want are such different things, when all we both want is for her to be happy. And if that can’t happen, all I want is for both of us to survive the intervening years between now and college. I wish sullenness was a condition with a diagnosis to medicate. I wish being the parent of a sullen child was a worthy reason to self-medicate. I stick to one glass of wine, not wanting to be the kind of mother who slurs when she asks her daughter if she’s finished her homework.
________“What do you think, Rachel?” I say. She hasn’t spoken to me in days.
________“I think that would be cool,” she says, to my surprise. The unquestioned value of the city overcomes any negative value that even I might place on it. I turn to Eliot with such gratitude and sudden joy that we go to bed early to have fast, hot sex against the granite counter of the master bathroom.
________The first afternoon in the apartment, Rachel can’t keep away from the windows. She leans on the sills and peers down at the cars and the buses and the people, a few stories below, moving like cells in an artery, pushing around blockages, constantly striving for space and speed. Eliot and I put away the possessions that we brought with us, and I tell Rachel we’re getting takeout, so if she isn’t going to unpack, that she should look for a restaurant she likes. She pulls out her phone and chooses a Thai place just down the street.
________“Who’s going to get it?” she says.
________“You are,” I say, before Eliot can say anything different. “You’re the one who knows where it is.”
________“No way,” she says.
________“I’ll go with you,” Eliot says. He glares at me. Undermines me. I turn to the kitchen and wipe dust off the countertops and take an inventory of the condiments that line the door of the fridge. I don’t say anything to him and they leave together.
________At night in bed I roll over and say to him please let her take chances.
________I could see she was scared, he whispers. Here we have no false assumption about sound carrying. There are really only three rooms here. It’s like living in a log cabin. We roll over and listen to each other breathe for hours, bodies tired from packing, brains awake with city traffic.
________“There’s a coffee shop that you might like to go sit and read in on Second Avenue,” I say to Rachel. She’s on her phone again, sitting at the window and looking down. Eliot has gone to the office and I’m about to leave her to her own devices (or just device, literally) during the day. She has her own keys. She knows we trust her to leave and come back, and to stay in touch. She looks at me, with that scowl. She hasn’t yet gone out on her own. Just like home, she’s happy to stay in her room. Not here. I won’t have it. Before she can say anything, I turn to her:
________“Go to the store and get some milk and cereal, please, for breakfast tomorrow. Here’s some money.” I put a twenty on the counter. I leave and shut the door behind me. I go out into the humid morning streets and love the feeling of walking to work. I love finding the hoofbeats of other commuters striking cement. This is what I want her to find—a shared rhythm.
________I come home before Eliot, of course, and there, on the counter, is cereal. The milk is in the fridge, even though it’s whole milk, which we never get, and I smile and look down at the floor a few seconds before I say I’m home, to get the nonchalant. Hey from Rachel in her room, but underneath the sounds of the word, I can hear something a little bit different, a foreign note, a sense of pride.
________“Thanks for picking up the groceries, honey,” I say to her. I put down my bag and take off my shoes. I get in the shower and when I’m toweling off, I can see Rachel hovering through the crack in the door, left ajar because it swells so much from the heat of the shower, we’ve discovered, it can almost trap us.
________“What is it, Rachel?” I say. I can remember when having her see my naked body was just a part of every day, when she was young and we went to a clothing store, or when we changed into our bathing suits to go swimming at a friend’s house. I turn to face her, careless with the towel, glad to have the casual closeness of this small place.
________“I’m going out to the café,” she says. “I’ll be home for dinner.”
________Standing back from the window, I watch her walk down the street, balancing on the curb, waiting to cross, and merging into the crowd, out of sight. I press my palms together to hold on to the relief of this moment.
________The first time Rachel brings Portia to the apartment, she just rests against the doorframe while Portia uses our bathroom.
________“How do you know Portia?” I ask.
________“You mean, where did we meet?” she says.
________“The coffee shop,” Portia says, striding out of the bathroom. She rolls her eyes, as if to say isn’t it quaint that we met in person, in a prim setting. She is carelessly lovely, wisps of hair on her cheeks and an A-line skirt over blue leggings. She has one of the warmest smiles I’ve seen on a young face, the eyes smiling upwards, an easy smile. My heart ticks with hope for Rachel. Portia is probably a year or two older than Rachel. Hopefully not more. It’s easy to see how effortless it would be for Rachel to adore her, which I can see that she does. I want to say I told you so, but I don’t.
________“We’re going to a concert in the park,” Rachel announces. “Can’t stay.”
When they leave I watch as they link arms tightly on the stairs, ribs pressing into ribs.
________“I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but I think they’re going to get together at the end of the movie,” Eliot says. He’s home late, and eating in the doorframe. Some of the summer vegetable ragout has fallen on his shirt, and it will stain in a minute, but I turn back to the television without telling him because he’s home late. He had said he’d be home early and we’d walk across Central Park after dinner and get a pastry or ice cream on the West Side. The shadows fell across the sidewalk until the sun crouched between buildings, and the people walking down the street looked like they were made of dust. The movie was on television, and I fell into it and couldn’t get out.
________“Where’s Rachel?” Eliot says.
________“If you’d cared you would have been home earlier,” I say. I cringe at my own voice. How predictably shrewish it sounds, and how deliciously passive aggressive. I just couldn’t resist. I never can.
________“Hey, now,” he says.
________“I work too,” I say.
________“I asked where our daughter was,” he says.
________“She’s at a movie,” I say.
________“With that girl?”
________“With that girl.” Because here’s the thing. After Portia came over—After the hope and the relief that my daughter could belong to something outside of herself, I felt this sadness again that the city hadn’t transformed her into something more than herself. She hasn’t started to wear black or makeup or carry a purse. She still walks around with her pants big enough to be secured by a rope and her hair a permanent bedhead. Portia hasn’t changed that. Portia seems to overlook it, or maybe even like it.
________“I’m glad she’s found someone to spend time with,” Eliot says. “It’s so nice. She didn’t ever have friends at home.”
________“I don’t know if Portia is her real name. That’s just what she calls herself. And they’re more than friends.”
________“I know. What does Rachel call herself?”
________“Let’s not ask that until we’re ready to know the answer.” I hope it at least started with an R, like Rae or Raphael or even R-dog. I know it wasn’t Rachel, because of the way Portia avoids calling her by name when she comes over.
________“In college everyone called me Eli,” he says. “It was so nice to be that other guy for a few years.”
________“You never told me,” I say. This is a joke, because he brings it up at least once a month. When I met him he was already wearing pressed shirts and pricing condos. It was hard for me to even think about who he was in college. It was hard for me to even think about who I was in college. I went upstate and made friends of still more packs of girls whose weddings I was in before I never saw them again because of work and Connecticut and commuting and Rachel. Now that we’re here, I should start looking them up again, all of them, to find out whatever happened to them, and whether they remember everything the way I do.
________“I loved being Eli. Where did that guy go?” he says. He leans against the doorframe. “I’ll bet he started a production company and made it big with some surfing video.” This makes me laugh, and I go to the kitchen and pick up a damp sponge and dab Eliot’s shirt. I am starting to see what our lives will be like when Rachel is no longer with us, out on her own. I am starting to see that our lives with her are actually fleeting, as endless as it all seems.
________“Let’s go and take a walk, anyway,” I say. “Let’s go across the park. It’s not so late.”
________On the street we walk down, there are people for whom the evening is just starting. Young men in rumpled collared shirts and loose ties and young women with summer dresses that are barely dresses. I can remember that feeling of resurfacing from a deep early evening nap on a futon, getting into the shower as the sun was going down, and finding my way with my friends to the bars that were spilling people out on to the humid side street. These deep nights. I remember what it was like to crave the time to walk home after a night out and to dream about the possible future. I can’t remember the last time I daydreamed. Probably in those hazy insomnia-drunk moments of Rachel’s first years of life, when I imagined her as the young adult she never became, the one who would entrust me with her secrets and stand tall and graceful between us in pictures. Now I know that girl will never exist. Rachel keeps her grace buried within her, and in pictures she turns away from us, crosses her arms, and forces a grim smile. It like pictures of captives and their captors in encampments in the Andes.
________“There she is,” Eliot says. He’s pointing to two young women whose forms I can barely make out in the twilight. They are holding each other so close that they almost appear to be one person.
________“Rachel,” he says. The two figures separate and she turns and I can see the dismay in the curve of her features in the headlights that bleed on to the sidewalks from the cars making right turns. She’s closing her eyes like she wants us to disappear as we get closer.
________“How was the movie?” Eliot says. He’s too casual. He’s able to say this like the movie is the only thing he wants to ask about. I want to ask about what they dream about for their future, now that I remembered how much a part of life daydreams used to be.
________“It was good,” Portia says. She’s able to project across the distance that remains between us like a true citizen of Manhattan, who needs to be able to hail taxis over drenching rain on canopies. Rachel stays quiet. She can’t speak like that. Maybe that’s something Portia will teach her, at least.
________Eliot leans over and hugs Rachel like he would if we were standing in our living room. She doesn’t lean away from him, but she doesn’t lean toward him either, and he has to bend to put his arm around her fully. It’s like a Christian side-hug.
________“What are you guys doing?” Rachel says. She has this look on her face that we’ve intruded, as usual, as always.
________“We’re taking a walk,” I say.
________“Where to?” she says. I have the idea that she wants that information so they can walk the opposite direction.
________“The pastry shop,” Eliot says. “Through the park. Come with us.”
________“Oh, that’s okay,” Rachel says. “No, thanks.”
________“I think we should go,” Portia says. She looks at us, but she is somehow looking at Rachel at the same time, daring her to come on this ride with her, and Rachel being Rachel, nods her head and shrugs without agreeing out loud.
________We go through the park moving through the halos that the lamps make in the humid air. There is a perfect stillness that muffles our footsteps, except for the click of Portia’s clogs smacking into her heels. Around us are people, everywhere, draped over benches or crouching on rocks, taking in the breath of cool that stays pocketed beneath trees. Walking, I am aware of things I don’t always notice, like my dress dipping into my shins at each step, and the smell of Eliot’s sweat mixed with the chemicals of his shirts from the dry cleaner. I had also forgotten the way this perfect balance of a peopled place could feel so safe and alone, and not lonely. Eliot must feel that way too, because he takes my hand in a way he hasn’t done in ages.
________We move through the path that crosses over to the west side, and Rachel steps on to the long lawn, and so we all do. She’s the one who tethers all of us together in a pod.
________“Watch,” Rachel says to Portia. She takes a long stretch, hands to the dark blue sky, and then poises, one foot forward. She sticks a leg out and takes three long strides then turns a perfect, perfect cartwheel, feet flexed. It’s the kind of cartwheel that makes me see that it’s meant to turn a body into a wheel. Her loose pants slip up to her knees and her shirt rides up around her belly, and her keys and change spill out of her pockets, flashing silver, into the grass, like a fountain. But she finishes the turn, straight and tall, and centered in the earth’s gravity. She’s planted firmly into the earth, legs beneath her, right-side up.
________I take in a breath. Eliot applauds. Portia runs to her, and Rachel reaches for her and lifts her and spins, and I wonder when she became strong enough to be the one to twirl someone else. They spin so fast they fall. They look for the change and the keys in the grass. I sink to the grass myself and feel this relief for the happiness and lightness of Rachel, which I have just seen for the first time in years. Eliot reaches for my hand and I rise, and he presses his palm against my cheek, and I feel the gratitude between us.
________“I’m so glad we’re here,” I say, even though feels like something that should stay unsaid.
________“I feel like running,” Portia says. She slips off her shoes and sprints off across the grass, for the joy of it. I can’t remember the last time I ran on the other side of a treadmill, or for joy, rather than from fear of weight or fear of death. Or perhaps those are more linked than I care to acknowledge.
________“It’s a nice evening, bug,” I call to Rachel. I haven’t used that nickname in ages. Not for ages, and ages. I had stopped because I didn’t want her to be any more fascinated with insects than she already was, and I realized I might be encouraging it. She turns and smiles at me, a sleepy smile, corners of her mouth tucked in, like Eliot’s. We walk to Rachel and she doesn’t edge away or shut down, for it’s clear that she is buoyed for love of Portia, for love of life, for finding her way to whatever will come next.
________Eliot puts his arm around each of our waists and tears threaten to slip out of each of my eyes, which I’m glad my family can’t see in the dark. I think now that maybe the girls didn’t see a movie at all. That was the kind of lie I’d make up when I was their age and I lived here. I’d escape my parents and find my way to the basement apartment of someone whose life I had no business being a part of. We’d smoke weed and listen to records, like that was the only thing to do.
________Now the breath of night gives chill to the air, and the smells of the streets are buried completely, so I’m almost sorry when we reach the other side, and feel the heat of the dark asphalt again and start to cross the avenues. Portia is trying to teach Rachel the lyrics to a song.
________“What will you have?” Eliot asks me.
________“Baklava,” I say.
________“You knew that all day long, didn’t you?” he asks.
________“I always know,” I say. “Have you decided yet?”
________“Cherry strudel, I think,” he says. But he’s the sort to change his mind three times between here and Amsterdam.
________“Get me one, man,” a homeless man says, and I think maybe Eliot will. That’s the sort of man he is too. Portia and Rachel are walking ahead of us, and Rachel doesn’t turn around, but I know she will wait for us at the corner. Just like I know that when she gets there, she’ll frown at all the chocolate, which she has always said tastes like metal, and which she has been turning down all of her life, to the chagrin of grandmothers and aunties and girl scouts and me.
________“Can we use your kitchen tomorrow night?” Portia says, turning around, walking backwards. “I’m going to make flan.”
________“Portia says our apartment has a great kitchen,” Rachel says, and I won’t remind her that it isn’t our apartment, because summer is an eternity when you’re fifteen. Before Portia, Rachel would never have thought about our kitchen at all.
________“I love flan,” I say, even though I don’t, and Eliot knows it, and shakes his head at me, and pulls me close.
________It’s completely dark now, but when we reach the corner, Rachel steps off the curb into the streaming headlights and holds her hand back to let us know it’s not yet safe to cross. The beams press against her as the cars turn, so the shadows she casts stream in every direction.