To Be Old
by Nicole Haroutunian
On her first night in New York City, in the furnished apartment where her savings would allow her six months’ rent, Sabrina took a bath and studied the way her ribs were now countable through her skin. She wrapped her hair in a towel and ordered dinner from a menu she’d found slipped under her door.
A teenager delivered her food, his face still smooth and his haircut overdue. She liked that Thai restaurants were staffed by Thai people here. When he gave her the price, she was shocked until she remembered that, in New York, everything counted twice. She said as much and, as he reached into his pocket for her change, he replied, “But you only live once.”
The banality of his statement struck her and she let out a bleat of laughter. If he’d waited an instant longer to turn away, she would have told him.
When she awoke the next day, her studio awash in morning light, the confession was still there like a catch in her throat, threatening escape. At the diner on the corner, staring at the bowl of yogurt and granola in front of her, she said, “It was silly to have gotten something so healthy.”
The waitress, a woman about her age with a sleeve of tattoos and a cute, campy apron, said, “Next time, think about the peanut butter pancakes.”
Admiring the red Formica tables and chrome stools around her, Sabrina thought that six months is not long except when measured in breakfasts: one hundred eighty, maybe one hundred-eighty-four. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said. This wasn’t the place to make awkward admissions, not if she’d be back. She could die now thinking about it. Then she asked, “Where do you like to shop?”
It was a jewel-box of a boutique hung with only ten different dresses. If she were the size she was a year ago, it’s unlikely any of them would have fit her, but now she had her pick. The shop girl zipped her into an off-white silk sheath with a slit down the middle back. “It’s perfect,” she said. “The color is gorgeous on you. Is it for any particular occasion?”
Sabrina smoothed her hands over her hips, felt their sharpness through the liquid fabric. “Yes,” she said. Her nose tickled as if she were about to sneeze. “It’s because I’m sick.”
The girl smiled. “It’s nice to get yourself a little pick-me-up when you’re under the weather.”
“I’m not under the weather,” Sabrina said, searching for the right phrase. “More like six-feet-under.” Her head was rushing and she saw, looking down, the dress fluttering with the beating of her heart. The shop girl’s hands stopped fussing at her neckline.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, folding her arms across her stomach. She was just as skinny as Sabrina, although she must have worked hard at it—spin classes, dressing on the side.
“You really think the dress looks nice?” Sabrina asked, pulling cash from her wallet.
The shop girl nodded, her eyes dancing around the room.
“I’ll wear it out.”
Outside, the spring wind rippled the silk across Sabrina’s skin and as she tilted her face up, the sun drew freckles across her nose and cheeks. She felt lighter than she had in weeks. It had been a strange irony that even as she was losing weight, she’d felt leaden; it was the loss of energy, of course, but it was more than that, too. It was as if the knowledge inside her was quantifiable, which meant it was diminishable, too. She hadn’t wanted to hand pieces of her diagnosis to those she knew, those she loved—but what a relief to give a sliver of it away.
She took herself to the park, to the café on the library steps beside it, and ordered a glass of white wine.
The green was crowded with coworkers lunching, mothers towing dizzy children away from the small merry-go-round beside it.
It’s not that it didn’t still bother her that she would never have a small sticky-cheeked child, or that her parents were going to be taken by surprise. She asked for another glass. Or maybe it was that — maybe it didn’t bother her anymore. Those first few days had been bottomless — finding out it wasn’t mono, which, feeling increasingly devitalized, she’d assumed it was (how scandalous, she’d thought, a grown woman with the kissing disease) — she might have inured herself to thoughts of the future. There was so much inside her to be angry at, so much that was out of her control, the least she could do was forgive herself this selfishness.
“Are you cold?” asked the man sitting a table over. He wore a navy suit and a checked button-down shirt. He had been eating a salmon salad and taking business calls on his cell phone. When he put it down, Sabrina saw that he had a nick in his ear, a small triangular piece missing in the lobe. She imagined what it might feel like to fit her fingertip into that space.
She was shivering, her arms and legs dappled with goose bumps. She saw how this could go — the identities she could assume now that she was the kind of frail beautiful girl that ruled this city, now that she was free to spend the rest of her money on clothes that completed the picture and there was no one to dispute whatever lies she may tell. She had been, on some level, preparing herself for this. There was the dress, the care she’d taken to keep her hair, at least, looking healthy. The businessman’s eyes matched his suit and she had no doubt that he would buy her a drink and lift her dress to her waist in any dark midtown corner.
“No, I’m not cold, just very sick,” she said. Either it was the wine or she was feeling brave. “I’m going to die.”
He drew his drink closer to his chest. He would not pay her bill now.
Over the next few weeks, she proved herself correct—she could have someone every night of the week if she kept quiet until it was over. She liked the sex, really liked it for the first time in her life, and sometimes, she liked the men. There was one she lingered with too long; before she told him, he asked to see her again. He made her forget only to remember.
She was already living so many lives in the hearts and minds of those she loved back home — she had a small notepad to keep track of the stories she invented for them when they called or wrote, which they did, except for the boyfriend, whom she missed so little she could only think there had been one small blessing in all of this — she needed to make this one real life crystalline and light. She focused on small pleasures — extravagant coffee drinks at the diner in the morning and pricy salon blow-outs once a week, movies during the day and tours at every museum up and down Fifth Avenue — and when the day accumulated into too heavy a burden, she would share it. To the docent at the Met she’d say, “I’m so glad I got to do this before I die.”
To the teenager plucking her banana pudding from the bakery case, she’d ask, “Is it good enough for a last meal?”
To the operator of that merry-go-round in the park she said, “Just one more time around before…”
It was the elderly ticket-taker at the art house cinema who clutched her arm — which finally had slimmed, she thought, beyond attractiveness—and said, “Me too.”
When Sabrina felt the pads of the woman’s fingers on her skin it was really bone on bone. What first appeared to be dyed-dark hair was a wig; the carefully arched eyebrows were drawn in. To be old! Sabrina wanted to push her, to watch her fall.
But how sad, how shrunken, how alone she seemed. Who could endure it for so long?
Sabrina accepted her invitation to sneak in for a second film. Jeanne’s shift was over and she wanted to watch, too.
The movie was dim and incomprehensible. Sabrina found herself seeing the screen as if it were no more than a shifting pattern of light, like it was outer space, the ever after. Jeanne slipped low in her chair, her head lolling before coming to rest on Sabrina’s shoulder. It was a while before the warmth of Jeanne’s body traveled through the plastic bulk of her wig to Sabrina’s body. She held still and took it in, the heat, the small fluctuations of breath, the living. When Jeanne roused at the end of the film, she gave Sabrina a business card.
“But that window came and went without my knowing,” Sabrina said in return, rubbing her thumb across the raised print, the doctor’s ritzy address. “All I have are these.” She jiggled her purse and in the silence of the movie no one else came to see, they listened to the pain pills rattle.
Jeanne held out her hand and Sabrina dispensed. “Tell me you had a second opinion,” Jeanne said.
“Hearing it once was enough,” Sabrina said. “I didn’t want to waste time. I always wanted to live in New York.”
Jeanne reached out, tapped her manicured nail on the card. “Make an appointment,” she said. “You are here to live in New York.”
Years later, she’s stopped searching for Jeanne in every new waiting room, at every new doctor’s office. When she goes to the movie theater, in the moment after the lights go dark, before the film glows to life, she sees Jeanne’s face, yes, but not only hers. She sees the shop girl, the man with the salmon salad, the young lawyer who asked to see her again. Take my pain, she’d told them, reckless and thin. She wonders, she always will, if they did.
Nicole Haroutunian is a fiction writer and museum educator living in Woodside, Queens. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House Flash Fridays, Two Serious Ladies, Barnstorm, and other publications. She writes the book blog Our Books Are Better Than We Are, is co-editor of the digital journal Underwater New York and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.