SUMMER IN THE CITY | Sarah Jane Millar reflects on sultry New York summers, where growing up felt like getting smaller.
by Sarah Jane Millar
My first summer in New York, I learn there are people who escape the season.
On Monday mornings the A-train stops at 51st street and these people sail aboard. The people who know other people. The people who have other places. On Friday afternoons they flee for the capes and the coasts and the lakes and the mountains. They retreat to the chastity of their cabins and their country clubs; so far from the sex of the city in the summer, where belts slacken and heat clings to the skin like a needy whore. And it’s all so sticky and so sweet and it’s all so drunk with fetid sweat.
On Monday mornings the people who escape New York summers return with their dignity and find us panting. They are lemon freshness, we are corporally spent.
My first summer in the city is just so sultry. And I am just so young.
A wooden racket handle extends from the bag he holds with a grip so light it denies effort. Sand spills from his turn ups. The toasted almond tan, the salt swept mane, the old school kicks. He’s all analogue. And so fucking rad.
I felt his eyes lock on me at 50th street and he holds them steady all the way down 8th Avenue. There’s no air conditioning in this tin can we tightly pack. Between the sweltering air and the heat of his spotlight I’m suffocating.
And he leans so casually against the side of the car. With his aged leather duffel in one hand, the other free to conduct the energy of his eager crowd. Holding court; the day’s prince regent and chief raconteur. He performs for them, but postures for me, and none of them thinks to shift their gaze. None of them shifts their gaze. Despite the heat and the rush hour static they’re rapt and I’m marked.
He is so thoroughly American. That signature air of hardy well-being, his vernacular of affable affluence. The easy nonchalance. The way he wears confidence as casually as the sweater about his shoulders. Frank as Sinatra, sincere as simulacrum.
Out on the street I quicken my pace as I hear his steps behind me. I don’t relent until we reach the corner of 12th Avenue where I slow to save him the embarrassment of breaking a sweat. Some misplaced obligation to a lady’s good grace.
‘You changed your hair.’
‘I think I liked it better before.’
But you noticed me now, you shit.
The expression, delivered like a sermon. The smile, too practiced and so perfect.
The gallery doors open and drench us both with diffused light and rarified air. We are removed from the city and its pulse drains quickly from my limbs. Behind the white desk, a poreless creature smiles on cue. Her hair stops abruptly at her shoulders, glossy like a grand prize car. I wonder if her breeding has immured her to humidity. He greets her with charitable charm. I steal into my windowless office.
‘So what’s your name, Blondie?’
I tell him.
‘Yeah, I can dig that.’
He raps the doorframe twice as he turns to leave. He doesn’t introduce himself. He knows he doesn’t need to. He’s already broken my serve.
His name is Teddy, as in Theodore. Whatever job he does seemed to rely heavily on charm and pedigree. The gallery is blue chip. Teddy is a blue blood. His family are San Fran ‘philanthropists’. I wonder if I am his summer project. Blue ribbon in waiting.
One day Teddy decides we need to look at some art. Chelsea is empty. It’s too hot for culture. I follow him through the galleries, from group show to group show. Good paintings quietly announce themselves to our tiny congregation; bad paintings shout profanity at the altar. He talks and I don’t. Everything echoes. I cleave meaning from the shapes before me. But when I look at him, I don’t know what I see.
He speaks to me through a sly smile. Like he’s telling me secrets. Like he’s granting me favours. I’m repulsed by the pleasure he takes from me but I take such pleasure in the repulsion. His arrogance is almost quaint. He stands too close on purpose. I don’t step away.
After work, we walk to the subway on 23rd street. We leave the gallery at the same time but we don’t leave together. Away from the thin, crisp air of high art, we move slowly. The air outside is thick. The air on the subway is thicker. The space between is the drag of one single languid cigarette.
After work, a man approaches me. He is a photographer. He is an artist. He needs desperately to pronounce the architecture of my limbs with his accent. An arm slips around my waist from behind. Teddy says nothing, he just starts to sing:
And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city
“My first summer in the city is just so sultry. And I am just so young.”
On Friday afternoons the people who go other places take their leave and I am left counting my own footsteps on a poured concrete floor. I stare at silent walls, freshly stripped and primed. On Friday afternoons I watch paint dry. White paint. In this perfectly sterilized shell, I exhibit a finely cultured specimen of uncertainty.
On Friday nights I get high on rooftops and slink across black velvet banquets in basement bars. On Friday nights my skirt rides my thighs and my hips are loose and my tongue is looser. On Friday nights I say what I want to. I drink vodka and suck ice cubes and weigh up vice with virtue. On Friday nights my lips are red and my laugh is loud. I eat cold pizza on my way back uptown, and nothing else is relevant.
I wear Friday nights though Monday mornings, when I perform my ablutions and toe a tightrope of charm down to Chelsea. It only takes two blocks to steady my gait.
Some days my manager comes back from Fire Island in his Kangol hat and his Morganthal glasses and gives me something to do. It’s usually at the library. I sit in the Rose Room and do my best Hepburn. I get lost in the majesty of symmetry and dark wood. Words might line these walls, but any bookish dignity pales against the glare of cinematic glory.
‘Well this is a neat little coincidence, huh?’
He doesn’t seem all that surprised.
The duffel in hand. The crisp blue shirt. The box fresh vintage Jordans. The ironic red chinos. They must be ironic?
‘I had to pick up an old Forum copy for a buddy of mine. He’s interested in a Dine. Pretty rad. Have to jet soon. Kennebunkport. Family. Nieces. Nephews. Good to get away, you know? Hang with some Colgate pals, drink some lemonade.’
I am a sounding board for his monologue.
‘I have some time, what do you say, a little iced tea in the park? Let’s get you outside. Nice dress.’
It’s that philanthropic gene.
Under the heat of the midtown sun we sit in Bryant Park with our seven dollar iced tea. So inspired; so insipid. I let it dilute my thoughts; there’s not nearly enough lemon to sharpen my tongue. I drink black coffee. But he doesn’t ask and I don’t say a word. He crosses his legs at the knees and slings an elbow over the cast iron chair back. His shirt is unbuttoned one too deep. And those Jordans . . . it’s all effortless, babe.
He takes my number as he hails cab. I let him. Then I walk around the corner, praying not to trip up the stairs of this temple of wisdom. I wonder if he’s just been rehearsing lines.
‘You and me, Blondie. Let’s make it happen. I’ll ring you. Next week. You and me.’
From the window of a bright yellow taxi he calls action, and the soundstage of Fifth Avenue stands still. It seems to stand still. I don’t go back inside.
In Central Park I watch Yoko Ono cross Bethesda. She wears a white double-breasted suit and white fedora. She wears black glasses. She is liquid ice. And so fucking cool.
This first summer in the city, I’ve learned to hit my marks, but I never know my lines. Instead, I smoke camel lights and wear my lashes long and dark.
He sweeps past my office door and tells me we’re having dinner tonight.
‘I’m thinking 9 o’clock, I’m thinking The Odeon.’
I’m thinking you’re not McInerney.
And I’m thinking I wish you were.
I’m thinking everything has become symbol and irony . . . Symbol and irony . . .
His loft is at the corner of Duane and Reade, like the drug store. It’s enormous but it’s familiar. It’s every loft I’ve never seen. The light is flattering enough to make me look like I belong. Nothing is accidental. A carefully curated spectacle of downtown bohemianism paid for with uptown inheritance. It speaks the visual language of an early 90s sitcom: bright colors, chandeliers, retro slang, token English flat-mate.
Two bedrooms are suspended from far flung corners of the ceiling. Galvanized ladders descend. A vast walnut dining table occupies center stage. Jewel-toned velvet sofas are strewn about like bennies from heaven. A Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid poster hangs framed in the kitchen. TriBeCa’s answer to Redford and Newman stand before me. I’m fully aware of the performance in play, but decide not to call cut on the charade. For the time being I am a willing participant, content to play the part for which I must have inadvertently auditioned: the season’s ingénue, complete with doe eyes and elfin crop. Just enough wit to bounce back banter, not enough lines to chance stealing the scene. It’s a supporting role, set to be written out at the summer’s end. Next season, same plot, different girl. But for now, the part is mine; objectionable, but admittedly well cast. Yeah, I can silence the cynic and play the naïf. And insouciance I can pull off with aplomb.
Far be it from me to deny them this theatre of vanity. I have the best seat in the house.
One day I tell him I left a necklace in his room and he asks me what it looks like, he’ll check the collection.
I wonder why men are always so keen to present us with their triumphs. Light refracts from their trophies and beams a glare upon our shame. At worst this light is blinding. At least, disorienting. It effects our capacity to see, and so we stumble. Shame is a pointed emotion, and sharp facets cast harsh shadows under the fading summer sun. My first summer in the city is over. And its fevered flush falls from my cheeks.
Somehow, I know he will be there. It’s an auction. It’s for charity. Any ostentatious fanfare is palatably offset by patrician virtue. And he has that benefactor blood.
Besides, the art world is small but its inhabitants are vain. Opportunities to see and be seen abound, but are still thought too few for those of whom one’s prime exhibit is the self. Paintings hang as quiet odes to dignity in this house of trash and vaudeville. A big white tent on an icy westside pier, it’s just the fucking pinnacle of civilization. Artists are either lionized or slaughtered; poachers go home with their kill.
His shoulders are still a bit too wide for his narrow frame. He can still strip me with his stare from across the room, leaving me naked and enjoying the diversion. With puppet strings in one hand, his other still paints a portrait of the Dashing Young Democrat. He takes my number again, and I let him again and I wonder if my head would stop hurting if I stop knocking it against walls. He says he’ll cook up some plans, we go to dinner.
He’s back from Beijing, he might stay a while. He married a model, he doesn’t think it will last. The usual thing. Time or whatever. Really sensational women are just so unrelenting, you know? They aren’t easily denied. I consider the slings and arrows that grown men must endure and his eyes dart deftly, scanning the shadows for luminaries. But he’s so bored by it all; creativity sold as a lifestyle and not borne of impulse. The scene feels kind of lame, right? He says so few people surprise him anymore. He says I’ve turned out well. I resent his refusal of my outright disdain, but hold contempt on standby. He asks if I am still the apple of my father’s eye. I ask him what he means. He says the only thing worse than lacking self-awareness is feigning its absence. The creases around his small, dark eyes are deeper. A hint of silver laces the flop of blonde. Everything is still pretty rad. Those Jordans he wears, they’re still box fresh. And when I look at him, I know exactly what I see.
Sarah Jane Millar
Sarah Jane Millar is a writer, currently living in London.