J awakes from her red dreams in the same position as she pulled the covers over her daily dose of reality last night, knees making a right angle with her chest. For a blissful moment, as her brain blankly updates yesterday’s self, she lies without thinking in the city that has changed incrementally since she fell asleep. The spring light reaches her through the air hole at the top of the duvet and she burrows her way towards it, straightening her stiffened limbs as she travels. Filling her lungs with air as she reaches the surface, she thinks of the rubber diaphragm stretched taut over a bell jar with which she had once measured the volume of her breath.
On the desk, where the date has flipped to seventeen since she last looked, a lurid colon flashes red between one ten and another. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she lets her legs dangle above the patterned carpet, contemplating the blue jeans and long, green anorak draped over the office chair parked in front of the numbers.
Further uptown, K has been awake since first light. Two hours ago, green polish was already drying on the fingers wafting before her lips. For a time, she had strutted around her apartment in tan pantyhose, inspecting her china ornaments as a pretext for admiring her emerald nails and calming her excitement. Then, she had spent almost an hour on her hair and make up, piling her blonde curls high on her head and making sure her foundation was thick enough to last the day. And now she is prising herself into a sequinned green leotard, forcing her flesh into the fabric that clings to her as it unravels; shirking the full-length parody of her activity, the mirrored door of the wardrobe remains resolutely closed as she works. Stretching her painted face into a smile by way of preparation, she considers how lucky she is, living on 42nd, with only a short walk west to meet the rest of her troupe.
Even further uptown, L opens her eyes onto the window that stretches the entirety of one wall to frame the park. Next to her, the sculpted shoulder of her current lover protrudes from the crisp linens, but his sandy head shows no sign of stirring. Swinging the shins of a thousand runways over the side of the bed, she streaks her sinewy frame past the park people and glimpses herself in reflection as she moves around the bed to the wardrobe that glides open to her touch. Pulling out her most innocuous clothes, she steps into lengthened denims, wriggling her hips unnecessarily as she fastens them, and feeling the simplicity of cotton over her narrow torso.
Tiptoeing over to the mirror, she checks the skin that still glows from yesterday’s facial, and pulls her straight hair into a glistening pony tail. On the dressing table, next to the champagne they had gargled like mouthwash last night, lie her oversized shades. She picks them up, thinking about how she will travel, concluding she will ask the concierge to call her a cab from the lobby. Next, she slips her arms into the khaki quilting of a jacket she proudly found in one of the cheap shops downtown, towards which she is silently progressing. Without brushing her teeth, she laces up her new air-filled sneakers and slips soundlessly out of the room.
No thought of transport enters J’s head as she strides through the erroneous streets below Houston. The walking helps her to forget. Even with budget sunglasses over her eyes, she notices things that were invisible to her before, but little of it makes sense. The first time she visited the city, the buildings between landmarks blended into insignificance, a meaningless backdrop clad in a camouflage of brick. The steam that came up through the pavements seemed cartoon, the streets unrecognisable without their companion pixels. Now, as she walks unencumbered along the broad walkways, every sign leaps out at her as a hint of something bigger. Skirting taxis as she moves unconsciously towards 5th, she tries to decode the clues. She watches those behind glass, disposing of their incomes on fancy food and clothes. She looks up at the luxury flats and down at the lapdogs being exercised in front of them. She studies the faces of strangers but none hold any meaning for her. She feels herself holding the weight of the world in the palms of her hands.
K smiles again as she reaches the sunlit sidewalk, gratified that her decision to leave her coat at home has paid off. Ready earlier than she needed to be, she had murdered a few moments by balancing her need for warmth against the annoyance of carrying a coat, and decided against it. At no point did concerns enter her head about walking through the city in her skimpy costume; anything goes, today of all days.
Her thighs chafe together as she lumbers towards the pre-ordained meeting place, spandex cutting into her body. Secretly scouring the streets for celebrities, she indulges her favourite fantasy of seeing the thin, dark-haired girl, the one from the TV show she watches, who does some modelling and advertises stuff. Her friend swears she saw her once in SoHo and wasted no time in telling the whole goddamn world about it.
Cruising downtown on Park, L contemplates the quiet streets behind two layers of tinted glass. As her cab speeds past pedestrians, she scours their faces for recognition and, finding none, feels both liberated and bereft.
Around the low 40s, the car slows to a standstill alongside a billboard, and she stares herself full in the face. The driver points to the hordes of people assembling in the streets to the south and suggests she walk down to 42nd to pick up a cab there that will take her the rest of the way. She is carrying enough cash to have him sit here for the rest of the day until the crowd clears, but decides to heed his advice and rams a $20 bill into his clammy hand as the anxiety rises within her.
J is making good progress and has found her way across Broadway, moving faster than everyone else. As the signs glare at her, she counts off the streets – 24th, 25th, 26th – and begins to think about her destination and the tranquillity of marble she will find there.
K has found the others and donned her tricoloured sash to match them. She waits, idly scanning the costumes clustered around her, the bulbous blue and the majorettes. She has always known herself to be Irish; it was one of the first things she remembers learning as a child and bragging about in the playground to distinguish herself. Of course, she has never visited the island itself and does not recognise many of the accents around her as her own.
L pulls up the collar of her thick coat and begins to perspire in the two blocks it takes her to reach 42nd. And still no-one notices her as she ventures towards 5th in the direction of the noise.
39th, 40th, 41st, J counts as she travels, head down, thinking of the sculptures stretching their hands out to her, proffering respite. It is the random chatter of hundreds of people that alerts her, and her heart sinks as she sees her path impeded by garish clothing and the flags that make things seem worse. 42nd to Park, she thinks, then overtake the parade and rejoin 5th higher up, arriving at the museum before them.
K practises twirling the stars and stripes above her head as she waits for the group to move off. She stands tall and looks at the crowds amassed on either side of her. To her right, she catches sight of an incongruous woman hurrying towards her, dressed in a winter coat, dark hair tied up in a deliberately casual style. Could it be? she wonders and the thrill of recognition permeates her. Barely noticing as the flutes and drums strike up ahead of her, she watches as another woman who could be her heroine crosses the street to intercept her mirror image. As J and L meet on the northeast corner of 42nd and 5th, K strains her eyes to distinguish them. As the parade begins to march towards its starting point, she holds her flag aloft and loses sight of the women in the crowd. In that moment, she feels all eyes upon her and nothing else seems to matter.
Commissioned by Jeanette Doyle for ‘And Then I Place My Face Against the Glass’, Dublin, 2005