The subway went express unexpectedly, and Erica ended up much farther south than she had intended. On the platform there was an old woman selling cold churros from a rusty shopping cart lined in clear tarp, but by then a mild depression had come over Erica and she said to herself that she did not want a cold stale subway churro. The loudspeaker announced that an uptown local was seven stops away, and Erica gave up and walked home.
At least it wasn’t raining. Down by NYU Erica noted all the girls who were terribly shabbily dressed and still looked adorable because they were young. Nobody criticized their clothes that didn’t fit quite right.
Her phone rang, and as she pulled it out of her purse it caught on something and nearly fell out of her hands. She fumbled with it majestically like a football player catching a Hail Mary, and although the phone still hit the ground it did so from only a few inches up, so a new ding on the case was the only damage. Less flattering was how ridiculous she felt entertaining all the kids on Seventh Avenue with her circus-like juggling antics.
“Hello?” she answered, not stopping to see who it was first.
“Grrrgmablble,” the phone answered back.
Erica covered one of her ears and pressed the phone hard against the other, in case the problem was with her hearing. She explained to whoever was on the line that she couldn’t hear them, apologizing as though her phone’s failures were really her own.
“Erica, it’s Mami,” the voice said clearly.
“Where are you?” Erica relaxed her grip on both the phone and her ear.
“I’m at home, what do you think?”
“I couldn’t hear you. It sounded like you were in a tunnel or basement or something.”
“No, I’m on my own couch. Brbrlemgrl.”
Erica took her phone away from her face and looked at it for a moment, puzzled with the strange sounds it transmitted. “What?”
“I’m eating pizza. Hrrmblrger.”
At times like this Erica could feel her rage boil up from the bottom of her stomach and churn through her whole body, a roiling magma of frustration that couldn’t find an escape vent. Unable or unwilling to throw her phone into oncoming traffic, Erica let her hand drop to her side and looked up at the sky and took a deep, deep breath.
Then she whipped her phone back up to her ear. “Why would you call me and then shove a slice of pizza in your mouth?”
“Finish eating, then call me!” She hung up, and then said to nobody and to everyone, “Damn!” Her hair fell into her face and she blew it away. The thing is, she knew the haircut wasn’t right. It’s not supposed to fall in your face all the damned time. Out of style, too. Julie stopped cutting it this way a long time ago.
It was a silly thing, a stupid assessment, something that was regularly mocked by comedians and political commentators and everybody who was a three or higher. It wasn’t anything she needed to take seriously. It meant just a little more money in the mail, and probably she wouldn’t get fired any time soon unless she did something really stupid at work. It’s not illegal but it’s bad form if you fire somebody within six months of them getting downgraded. Just like it’s bad form to promote a one if they aren’t the most senior or brilliant person in the room.
And still, as much as she didn’t care, as she walked up Ninth Avenue Erica felt her chest tighten, and the night air creep too close to her skin for comfort. She wanted to disappear, just step into a shadow behind this falafel cart and vanish, float through dark ether for eternity or else just cease to be. The closest thing to that was to go to a movie, just walk into the next theater she saw and watch whatever was playing next. Lewis did that sometimes, and always came back and reported having seen some amazing obscure thing. Erica tried it once and ended up watching John Carter.
No, her mother would call back soon enough. Probably just after she bought a ticket and couldn’t get her money back. Erica continued to trudge on home.
But it hadn’t always been like this. There was a picture in her father’s house of Erica in the ninth grade, on the softball team. She was posed with the bat lying lazily on her shoulder, and a sweet half-smile on her face. She had rosy cheeks and deep dimples, and her hair fell out from under her cap and caressed her cheek. She was adorable then, not gorgeous in a jailbait way but a very cute young lady, someone who could grow to be a two maybe.
Next to it, in her father’s house, was a picture of Amelia from that same year. Her hair was a tangled mess, her glasses didn’t fit her head, and her smile was somewhere between goofy and unsettling. Erica never looked liked that. Compared to that picture of Amelia, Erica was maybe even a one. Erica always appreciated that those were the pictures her father put up: the best picture she ever took, and the worst one her sister took. Obviously, Erica was the favorite. (Amelia liked to point out that both pictures were from the same year, and so it was probably the only time he had ever ordered the prints from the school photographer. She also liked to note that the guy who took that lovingly posed picture of Erica was now a registered sex offender. But Erica never confirmed that was true.)
The phone rang just as Erica turned onto her block. It was her mother, the pizza now eaten. “I got it supreme so it has a lot of vegetables. I have to eat healthy.” But she probably took the bell peppers off, because those are gross when they’re cooked. If Erica got in the elevator the phone would cut off, so she stayed out on the street talking to her mother.
“What’s wrong?” her mom asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m good.” Mousey voice.
“You don’t sound good. Something happen at work?”
“No, work’s fine. How’s your yoga?” Good to change the subject. Her mother immediately went into a long and enthusiastic description of her yoga routines. She used all the names–downward dog, standing tree, pregnant camel, watusi boogaloo–like they were something Erica should now, like names of childhood friends. She also devoted about as much attention to describing the outfits she wore, which was, after all, what drew her to yoga in the first place. For an older lady she looks pretty good in workout clothes.
“You don’t sound like yourself,” she said again. “Tell Mami. Dime.”
“Nothing, I’m just tired.”
“Work troubles? No!” She had a revelation. “Your sister!”
“Amelia’s fine, mom.”
“Amelia’s never fine. That child will be the death of us all. Did you talk to her this weekend?”
Erica rubbed her eyes with her thumbs, as if that would make it stop. “No.”
“You have to talk to your sister! Family’s the most important thing!” Everything drove her mother into a tizzy. Later she would blame the carbs.
“I called her, she was busy.”
“Dios mio, I can only imagine why.”
“Mom,” Erica struggled to be polite to the woman who bore her, “what’s new with you?”
She needed little prompting. “You know Carmen at the yoga studio?”
“I’ve never been to your yoga studio.”
“The one with the hairless cat she always talks about, it looks like it’s made of raw meat.”
“You’ve told me about her.” There was a low wall in front of Erica’s building that fenced in the trash cans a little. It was the closest thing to a stoop on this block. Erica, who was tired from walking more than she usually did, sat down on it. It smelled like garbage, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Anyway, she went in to get her assessment last week–you know where they tell you how ugly you are. Anyway, she always acts like she’s hot shit, I don’t even know why she went to the assessment, she’s at least my age but she thinks she fools everyone, I bet she’s even older. She always says she’s a two, and when she was in college she was probably a one but they didn’t start doing assessment until after she had kids–although I’ve seen pictures of them and her son would be a seven if the ratings went that low. So she comes in crying on Thursday because they made her a three, and she thought we would care or something but I said to her, you know what I said, I said you look like your ugly cat, they should have made you a four.”
So I look like an old woman’s ugly cat, Erica thought to herself.
“She must have thought I was her friend or something and I’m like, ‘I stretch in the same room as you twice a week, I’m not your damn friend. Go talk to that cat, it looks like chewed up bubble gum with claws, it needs a friend.’ When do you get your assessment done?”
Erica’s mother chased after thoughts like a pretty child butterflies. Naturally, this butterfly had flown back towards Erica. Next it would go to Amelia, she could guarantee.
“I had mine done a few months ago,” she lied.
“What did you get?”
Erica sighed. “I’m always a three.”
Her mother paused before answering. “A three is good. Everyone’s a three. You don’t be ashamed of that, cariño, you’re beautiful. My beautiful little girl.” It didn’t matter how empty or obligatory the parental praise was. Erica was pleased to her praise from anyone in that moment.
“Has Amelia told you anything new?” Naturally.
“No. I haven’t called her yet.”
“Listen, when you call her, don’t just let her talk and say what she wants. You have to ask her questions, make her open up. You know she’s difficult, and she doesn’t tell me anything. She doesn’t trust me at all. I wonder what I ever did to her besides love her, I must have been a terrible mother to be so mistreated by my daughter.”
“Mom,” Erica finally couldn’t take it anymore, “I have to go pee.”
“I have to hang up. I’m outside. I don’t want the call to drop in the elevator.”
“Okay sweetie, you go do that. Call Amelia.” And she hung up.
“Good night, Mom,” Erica said to the dead receiver.
Down the block was a decent Chinese restaurant. She could get takeout. There were leftovers upstairs, but maybe a fresh meal would take the edge off things for the day. If she ate it there she wouldn’t even need to clean up. Besides, the couple that ran the restaurant were always yelling at each other in Chinese, and it was both amusing and educational. Their favorite exchange was something of a ritual: he’d shout, “Èrbī!” and she’d yell back, “Shǎbī!” And then he’d say, “Sāobī,” and she’d answer, “Chòubī!” And then he’d finish with “Cào nǐ mā!” and she’d throw whatever was in her hand at his face. It happened often enough that Erica had the sounds memorized, on the off-chance that she ever got into a fight in Chinatown.
Her phone rang. As was her habit, she answered and checked the caller ID at the same time, causing instant regret.
“Hi, Amelia,” she sighed.
“What’s up, you called me.”
“Did I? Butt dial.”
“No, this morning. We talked. I said I’d call you back.” Yep. And now she really did have to pee. And did really want some Chinese food. “So why’d you call?”
“Have you talked to mom lately?” Erica began strolling down the block, towards the restaurant.
“She’s concerned. Did you tell her anything?”
When they were kids once Amelia ran over a camel cricket with her tricycle, probably on purpose, and mortally wounded the hideous thing. She was both horrified by the creature and beside herself with guilt, and scooped the dead bug up and carried it to the nearest authority figure, who on that day was their father. The cricket wasn’t entirely dead yet, though cricket juice was oozing out of its body, and Amelia cried both because it was in pain and because it was disgusting. She showed it to her father, who was more interested in figuring out what sort of creature it had once been and completely missed the horror on his young daughter’s face. A final spasm of life passed through the bug, causing its legs to clench around Amelia’s little hand, and the sum of all the tragedy and nastiness triggered a response deep in her stomach and poor little Amelia threw up all over her hands and the camel cricket, who hopefully died of shock before it could drown in puke.
When asked later why she didn’t just let the cricket die on the sidewalk, Amelia couldn’t give an answer, but for years her family read into the incident as a window into her character, especially her habits of misbehaving, confessing, oversharing, and, sometimes, vomiting on herself.
“I got arrested on Saturday,” she said with a quizzical lift in her voice, as though it was only wild speculation that this could be what had alarmed her mother.
“It doesn’t even matter, they let me go. I was back home by noon.”
“Who the hell gets arrested on a Saturday morning?”
“That’s when all the fun stuff happens,” Amelia deadpanned. “Oh, and I was in a car crash, but that was a few days ago. I don’t think I told Mom about that. Maybe I did. No, I did, but only because I put it on the credit card and I know she still checks my account.”
Oh God Amelia, why did they ever let her out of the house? “Are you okay?”
“Perfectly fine. It wasn’t even my fault. The car had its protective layer of dirt on so all that happened was the taillight broke, and some of the stuff in the engine got loose. But I got it fixed that same day.”
During the telling of the story Erica walked passed the restaurant and was now heading uptown. She had been lying earlier but she really did need to pee now. But coming back to an earlier point:
“Why does Mom still check your accounts?”
“Why does Mom do anything she does?”
“You need to change your password.”
Amelia mock-gasped. “That would really break her heart.” How could Erica be anything other than a four when these were her loved ones? “But enough about me. What’s going on with you?”
For a moment Erica actually considered sharing her shame with her little sister. But just for a moment. It was possible that Amelia would be sympathetic and offer up a shoulder to cry on. It was also possible that Amelia would laugh into the phone and turn it into a running joke. With little sisters anything is possible. They don’t even mean to be that way, it’s just the way they are. Being smaller means being cuter, and that really messes with your head after a while.
“Nothing. I just hate my job sometimes.”
“That’s why you need to buy scratch lotto tickets. Oh, listen, plans aren’t final yet but I was thinking about coming to New York for Christmas. Can I stay with you?”
Erica answered more quickly than was polite. “No! I mean, no, of course not. Get an AirBnb.”
“I don’t have room for you in my apartment. Where are you going to sleep?”
“You have a big bed. You know half of it’s always empty. Let me have it.” Ouch. “We’ll sleep head-to-foot so you don’t have to worry about turning gay.”
“Amelia! You’re my sister!”
“Great, so we’ll sleep side by side. Three days, maybe four.”
Erica growled into the phone. “I hate you.”
“But I love you!”
She sighed and mumbled, “I love you, too.” But then, more clearly, “We’ll talk about it later, but it isn’t a yes, or even a maybe. It’s a no. But we can talk about it later.”
“Thanks, Gurkha, you’re the best!”
“I am not, and you’re not staying with me.”
Somewhere along the way, when Erica wasn’t paying attention, a very large cloud had passed over to Manhattan from Queens and decided, quite suddenly and with no obvious provocation, to unload its supply of water as hurriedly as possible onto 22nd Street. The water was ice cold despite the evening being warmer than usual, and Erica shrieked and began to run. She was three and half blocks away from home and the sidewalks were jammed with other people out for a stroll who had neglected to look up. Strangers crashed into each other left and right. Erica ended up trapped between two masses moving in opposite directions, directly under the edge of an awning that collected and concentrated the falling water directly onto Erica’s head. She got out at the corner and ran as fast as she could–which unfortunately wasn’t very fast at all–back to her apartment.
In the elevator she surveyed the damage done by the rain. The phone still worked, though she made a mental note not to use it until it had dried. Her blouse wasn’t ruined but it should have been, and she decided that she would throw the damned thing away before it even had a chance to dry and guilt her into putting it back on the shelf.
The elevator at last released her and she opened her apartment door to see her roommate Becky and Becky’s sometime-boyfriend Hugh naked on the couch, two rolling masses of pink and white mottled skin, with too much hair where there shouldn’t be any and not enough hair where there should have been more.
“Becky!” she shrieked despite herself, covering her eyes.
“Don’t make me stop, I’m close!” Hugh panted.
“Hurry it up, you slob,” Becky moaned, clutching at a pendulous bare breast. Erica turned around and went back into the hallway. She hated everything, absolutely everything at all.
She ended up waiting a long time. Every few minutes she took out her phone and then remembered not to use it. The neighbors walked by and stared at her, now doubt wondering why she was just standing in the hallway. Erica eventually waved at them and they looked away. After a long time Hugh opened the door. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I think it stopped raining, though.” He walked down the hall, straightening his hair with one hand and his pants with the other. Erica went inside.
Becky was only slightly more dressed than before. “Come on, Becky!”
“I don’t want to see your vagina.”
“You’ve seen it before!”
“Never by choice. I’m going to pee, be dressed when I get back.”
She used the bathroom and then went into her room to change into pajamas. It would be leftovers tonight, after all. When she came out of the room Becky was in the kitchen, eating ice cream from the carton.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked
Erica sighed. “No, I’m just hungry. We have leftovers still, right?”
“I ate out tonight, so yeah, it’s all in there.”
There was pork fried rice in one plastic tub, some chicken tikka masala in another, and something that was either torn up hush puppies or overly breaded falafel. She put all three on a paper plate, microwaved it for two minutes, and went to the couch. There was still a wet spot on the center cushion, so she sat on the floor to eat. There was no sense in asking why they couldn’t do it in the bedroom.
“I had my assessment today,” she blurted out between bites.
“What assessment?” Becky asked.
“The ugly assessment. You know, ‘the assessment.’ Everyone calls it that. That assessment.”
Becky thought about it for a moment. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe she just decided to focus on this long lick of ice cream before returning to the conversation.
“Did you pass?”
“I got a four.”
Becky slammed the ice cream down. “Shut. Up.” Erica shrugged. Finally, the reaction she had been looking for. She wasn’t a four. It was an injustice.
Becky’s look of shock turned into a broad smile and she actually jumped up and down clapping. She squealed like a six-foot hog and ran over for a high five. “Welcome to the ugly club, girlfriend! I’m so proud of you!”
Erica submitted to the high five despite her own surprise at this turn of events. “It’s not a good thing.”
“It most certainly is! Look at us.” She adopted a husky Dietrich-esque voice, smooshed her cheek against Erica’s, and pretended they were both looking in a mirror. “Free of society’s judgment, of the pressure of striving for an unattainable ideal. We are women, we are ugly, and we don’t give a crap.”
“I give a crap!” Erica pulled herself away from the imaginary mirror.
“Why? Look at me, I’m a five. A five! And I just had some hot sex on your couch. So who’s hot?”
“Don’t remind me about the couch. Why can’t you use your room?”
“No air conditioning. And when we get sweaty, we get smelly. And we always. Get. Sweaty.”
Erica’s appetite shriveled up and died. She got up and put the food right into the trash, paper plate and all. It didn’t help that even after eating it she still couldn’t tell if it was hush puppies or falafel.
Becky was still excited. “What? You get some money–not as much as me, but that can’t be helped. And you can’t get fired unless you actually burn your office down or your company goes bankrupt. I haven’t bought a shirt that cost more than ten dollars in five years. I haven’t bought a new shirt in four years. I only change my socks when I feel like it.”
“You don’t want to know about my undies.”
Becky jumped onto the couch, and when she landed both it and the whole floor gasped. “I don’t believe for one moment that you are upset about this. You are strong, and talented, and beautiful, and young, and, and, yeah.”
“What friends are for.” She turned on the TV. “Law and Order reruns. They filmed this one near here. Look, its the Chinese restaurant on the corner, back when it was a Mexican place! Ah, those were the days. More innocent back then, you know.”
Ooh, Erica thought to herself as she looked in the fridge again: a beer. She took it out, opened it, and went to the couch. “Can my sister stay here for Christmas?”
“Who, Stinky? I love her.”
“Sure, but she can’t sleep in my bed. I might have a man in there.”
Erica was slightly allergic to alcohol. Just a few sips made her feel lightheaded, and a few more made her legs itch. A bottle of beer would leave her drunk and sleepy in no time. There were worse ways for this day to end. The longer she stayed sober and awake, the more likely she was to find out.