Irene Richmond ran down the narrow foyer, helping guests get out of their coats, which were dusted with flakes of snow that had been coming down heavily all day and still drifted lightly onto the hotel balcony. Coats that cost more than she earned in a month and that were works of art themselves. Hoods lined with fox fur imported from Finland. A quilted sateen coat filled with goose down and patterned in the latest Japanese style of concentric circles. A long vest made of rabbit. Mongolian lamb’s wool. Irene got a thrill from just holding them, but it was always short- lived. By the time the guests had finished warning her not to crease the collars or wrinkle the hems, there was someone else making an even more fashionable entrance.
During rare pauses, she checked her phone for messages from George and Sara. Nothing. And nothing from Jacob either. Twisting in front of the hallway mirror, she reseated the bobby pins that kept her blond hair up off her shoulders. She liked the way her neck looked in the golden light by the door. An elegant extension of her one bared shoulder. She hoped it wasn’t too much. Abeba had said only to look nice, but Irene had sensed an implication that she not look nicer than the guests. Juliette then added that it was important to look hip, which Irene took to mean young, vital, and strange. Therefore: cerulean leggings, crochet sweater dress, peacock feather necklace, and a braided skinny-belt. Irene hoped these projected the artistic, professional image specified. Every job had its uniform.
She checked her eye shadow, which made her irises look a shade darker, almost black instead of blue. She rubbed at a spot beneath her left eye that had been there for a month now but had only recently begun to feel sore. Buzz went the door, and she was off to collect a giraffe-print bolero from the next artist or heiress to stagger in on midnight- black stilettos.
The K Gallery’s annual holiday party at the Waldorf Astoria was always an impressive affair. All year Irene and her friends looked forward to this night, the second Friday in December.
Jst added 15 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading @HarlanCoben 2 supp @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
Not that they didn’t go out other nights, not that living in the city wasn’t sometimes glamorous, but never anything compared to this. There were seventy-eight people on the exclusive guest list, and renowned chef Marc Herradura was catering. Honest-to-God movie stars attended. Last year they’d seen that guy from The Office, and the year before that, Cyndi Lauper! This was that other New York: always around them but never visible. For this one night it elonged to them too.
Even with the first big storm of winter going on outside and flights canceled at JFK and LaGuardia (only Newark soldiered on), they had nearly full attendance. All day the gallery’s owners, Juliette and Abeba, had been commanding Irene from one end of Manhattan to the other. They’d thrust her into snow-capped cars in Chelsea with a wrought-iron baboon skeleton (a steal at just $300,000) whose shrieking head had extended dangerously out the window into traffic. Wearing a pair of Abeba’s oversize duck boots, Irene had sloshed across the posh lobby of the Lexington Avenue hotel, aching under the weight of a moldy yam encased in bile-green polypropylene (starting at just half a million).
Five years ago, when she’d first begun working at the gallery, Irene had gotten a thrill simply from being near such valuable art, but by this point she was considering telling the driver to take her and the oversize photograph of Trisha Birch’s genitals (one million flat) to the George Washington Bridge so she could hurl it out into the Hudson. Or maybe she would just keep going. On and on, out of the city. With the money this one photo was worth, Irene could paint all day and all night for another twenty years. Or start her own gallery. Or institute a progressive artists’ colony where young dreamers could take up their own work. She could help them avoid the eighteen- hour days, the perpetual temper tantrums, the name-dropping, the ego trips, the talentless and tormented. Except that, of course, outside New York City, the Trisha Birch photographs were more likely to get her arrested for indecency than for theft. Maybe in L.A., she thought. Maybe in London. Maybe on Mars, or Neptune.
Juliette and Abeba were not terrible bosses, but they had all the fussiness of artists without the brilliance. They had an eye for slick marketing and could start a trend like nobody’s business. But the higher the K Gallery climbed in the Chelsea scene, the more Juliette and Abeba drank sickening amounts of Campari and spoke of selling everything and setting sail for the Marquesas like Gauguin. Rule one of living in the city, Irene had learned—as soon as you got there, you had to begin threatening to leave. She was theoretically putting money aside for a trip to France from which she privately imagined she’d never return, though it seemed like the same $350 or so kept entering and exiting her savings account; meanwhile the trip got more expensive and the exchange rate got worse and the gallery took up more time.
Still, it was, as they said, a living, and far from a bad one. Even when she’d had to examine Teacup Yorkie feces to see which should be threaded alongside diamonds on a necklace for the Bryant Park show. Even cataloging seventeen years of Percy Bryson’s toenail clippings. But she had legit benefits and enough money to pay for a cramped studio apartment on East Fourth Street, where she could paint at night without disturbing a roommate. Plus she wasn’t starving. If not trips to France, her paychecks covered a vintage dress or two and movie tickets and bar tabs and green tea smoothies.
Buzz! At last it was them: George Murphy and Sara Sherman.
George wore a wide smile and a black pinstripe suit. Was it new? It was. Sara had gotten it for him last week at the Macy’s pre-Christmas sale, to wear to his postdoc interviews. Irene kissed his cheek and inspected his penny-coppery hair; it needed cutting. Irene could never resist the urge to ruffle his head lightly, for luck.
“We made it!” George announced. His cornflower-blue eyes met the room over Irene’s shoulder and then fixed on her. When he spoke to her, or to anyone, they never drifted an inch. His three favorite words were, “Did you know—” and after saying them, he had a way of lowering his voice as he told you something terrific about some distant galaxy he was researching out at the North Shore Observatory, as if Andromeda B were a restaurant you might want to check out sometime. He seemed to want nothing more than for others to find him handy to have around. Swiftly, he could explain to you: the mechanics of an elevator, the science behind a hailstorm, or the electric spark between your fingers and the fringe of your dress. A good Catholic boy from Columbus, someone had raised him right; George Murphy was attentive in a city of the attention- deficient, and for this he was always looked after.
“No one’s ever on time to this thing,” Irene said. “Here, give me your coat.”
But George was already hanging it up by himself.
Sara slid in for a kiss from Irene. “Some big accident on the LIE,” she explained.
Irene told her she looked stunning, and Sara said she must be mental; she’d come straight from the gym and was sure that she must reek, but of course she did not. Her long purple dress was discreetly sequined. Raven-haired and slender-jawed, Sara forever made Irene itch to break out her charcoals and sketch dark, elegant lines. No matter that she was technically not of the artsy crowd at this party—inside an hour, half the people there would believe Sara was the one throwing it. She’d glide from one conversation to the next, sometimes drawing one or two along with her until no one was a stranger to her, or to anyone, anymore. “Did you know” were also Sara’s three favorite words, followed not by a fact but by a person. She always knew someone you knew: a girl in your prom limo, your YMCA summer camp counselor, the barista at the coffee shop you frequent, a man you met at that bar in Chiang Mai, the boy whose hand you held on a third- grade field trip to the Museum of Natural History. Some people never forgot a face; Sara never forgot a connection.
George played with his skinny knit tie in the hall mirror. “Six-car pileup. I’ve done this commute every day for five years, and I’ve never seen a crash that bad.”
Irene watched as the mirror’s golden, thorny frame transformed George into a portrait: Man in Crooked Necktie. She wished she could tear the Claude Lozarette off the farther wall, melt the pigments off the canvas, and use them to paint George right there on the mirror’s surface—why not?—but the moment passed. The knot was fixed; he’d stepped away.
“Sorry. I had to change in a Starbucks bathroom that smelled like dead aardvarks and—”
Sara interrupted. “Oh, speaking of— this is for you.” She dug an oil- stained brown bag from her bottomless purse.
Irene peeled back the paper to reveal a single, smushed vanilla cupcake. Little rainbow sprinkles formed a lopsided swirl, winking up like stars.
“They made us buy something. Can you believe it?”
In fact, Irene could not believe it. First, Sara was a rotten liar, and second, everyone knew Starbucks was one place you could use the bathroom without paying for something; it might as well be rule two of city living.
George winked at Irene as she helped slip off Sara’s coat. “Someone was afraid you didn’t eat today,” he murmured.
Sara pretended to object, but Irene kissed her cheek again. “Well, did you?” Sara inquired, and before an answer was given, she reached up to poke the faint spot beneath Irene’s eye.
Irene snapped her head to one side. “I had some grapes.”
She already regretted telling Sara about last week’s CT scan, which meant she’d just keep worrying and eventually she’d ask about yesterday’s follow- up appointment.
“Jacob here yet?” George asked, absently trying to take Sara’s coat so he could hang it.
Irene yanked it back. “Not yet. But he’s always late.”
“But we’re late.”
“He’s always later.”
Then, as Irene moved to close the door, she saw someone approaching—a young Korean man who was shyly inspecting the wall. It took two seconds to see that he didn’t belong there. Distantly, she remembered him from somewhere. He wore a sharp, gray Armani suit and held, in one hand, a bottle of Bollinger Blanc. Who brings champagne to a catered party? Irene wondered as she tried to remember which gallery he worked for. She wasn’t entirely surprised to see Sara give the boy a bear hug.
“William Cho? What are you doing here? Irene, did you know William? He was in Art History II with McClellan. You sat in on that one.”
Irene didn’t hesitate to grip his wet, gloved hand in welcome. He was very thin, with cheekbones that she was sure she’d have remembered if he’d had them back in college. People don’t just go around getting cheekbones, she told herself. Or coal-black eyes like that either. She liked the girlish line of his upper lip; he bit it nervously whenever he looked at her. Normally she wasn’t very interested in shyness, but something about him was making her blush.
Sara turned. “George, you remember William.”
They shook hands politely. “Sure! William Cho, right? We met at that newspaper party with Lisa Schmidt. Sara took over as features editor after Lisa went to Madagascar with that guy with the Rhodes . . . honey, what was his name?”
Sara knew it (Henry Fordham, Jr.), and also that the girl’s name had been Lisa Schlick, but from the look on William’s face, Irene guessed he didn’t know either of them.
“Hang on!” George said, “Before we get caught up, let me grab us all something from the bar.”
It was understood that Irene had to wait until the guests had finished arriving, but Sara said anything involving St. Germain would be terrific. It was only then that William thrust forward the bottle of champagne that he’d been cradling like a football.
George seized it with grateful hands. “Damn. This is nice stuff, William.”
“I stole it,” William abruptly announced.
“Like, you boosted it?” George asked. “Don’t tell me you boosted this.”
Sara laughed. “Boosted? What are you, a thirties gangster?”
George winked at her while William clarified. “Yeah. I mean—no. I didn’t rob a liquor store or anything. But it’s been under the coatrack in my boss’s office since last Christmas.”
Turning the bottle over, George peeled a shiny gift tag off the bottom. “ ‘To Lenny. From the Berg-Geldorf Family!’ Well thank you, Berg-Geldorfs! I’ll see if the guy can put this on ice.”
He clapped William on the back. Then, while Irene and Sara turned their attention to William, he slipped into the main room with every appearance of happiness.
Excerpted from Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma. Copyright © 2016 by Kristopher Jansma. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.