Illustrations by Cendrine Rovini
he doorman buzzed. Her visitor was here. “Send her up, thanks,” said Candice. As if she had any authority over Isobel. She checked herself in the powder room. She looked like a Cindy Sherman photograph. A woman pretending to be a woman. Thirty-five years old, hair in a practical bob, mommy arms poking out of a brightly patterned Lilly Pulitzer shift. Her image was framed by sage-green wallpaper patterned with Cyclode moths. All I need is an axe, she thought.
The days working at the firm with Isobel had shaped her, taken her from grieving, bulimic, and alone, to settled and married. Isobel had been the only one at the office to see that Candice wasn’t just some Southern glass of milk, that there was something interesting concealed behind the appearance. A decade had passed, but maybe there was some sediment of darkness that could get stirred up again by Isobel’s presence.
She opened the medicine cabinet, sending her reflection to right angles, and considered a yellow-orange vial. Something for the nerves. Maybe no need. She heard the distant ping of the elevator and shut the mirror. Her face squared again. Her smile, also a square.
Isobel stepped out of the elevator looking like a kind of high-tech utensil. Something you’d use to tighten a screw. Skinny in black cords, black ponytail, black shirt under a tailored jacket. Pale as ever. She didn’t carry a purse. She threw her hands up and sing-songed, “Hi-i-i!”
“Hi, you!” Candice wavered, not knowing what to do with her arms. She didn’t remember Isobel as a hugger. Maybe they would kiss on the cheek, or shake hands even. She looked like a handshaker.
But Isobel came in for a real hug. A scent came off her hair. Like she’d emerged from a chamber filled with incense smoke. Candice closed her eyes and saw peacock feathers and jeweled scarabs. She was careful not to squeeze too hard or for too long, mindful of all the sharp edges of Isobel’s bones and clothes. She stepped back. “You look so thin.”
“I forgot that’s how you people greet up here,” Isobel said, shifting.
“It’s better than hello?” Candice was unsure if she had offended or if she should feel offended. You people.
“Wow, this place looks like something out of a magazine,” Isobel said, stepping into the apartment.
“Soldier of Fortune.”
“I was going for more of a Big Butt look, but I’ll take Soldier of Fortune. Do you want some cookies?”
“Yes. If by cookies, you mean no cookies.”
“If the milk comes from a distillery, yes, please.”
On the way to the liquor tray, she straightened the ebony ashtray on the coffee table. She liked how there were no shadows on overcast days. Less direct light meant less shadow. The apartment became evenly illuminated. The open living room, with its generous footage, its multiple seating areas, the view of Central Park, satisfied Candice’s need for balance. She’d achieved a perfect blend of elegance and earthiness. Pale gold walls like she’d seen in a castle in France, large landscapes in gilt frames, a mahogany desk set, contrasted with a rough sisal rug, a plump rubber tree, and natural-looking animal-print pillows. Piles of coffee-table books and a few random toys created a healthy sense of clutter.
Isobel’s eyes settled on Caleb’s drum kit, red glitter and tight white circles in the sun.
“My son, Caleb. He’s out with the nanny.”
It was a mouthful of foreign words. Candice felt a pressure behind her face. Suddenly she was laughing. And then Isobel, too. Laughing. Hard but not as hard as Candice. It went on for some minutes, ice spilling onto the carpet from the otherwise empty glass Candice had started to prepare. Her stomach muscles began to ache.
They used to laugh like this at the office behind upholstered cubicle boards. The place had been a stage where co-workers sweated out a high-intensity game of charades, while brokering business deals, fully investing themselves in performances—imperious boss, type A banker, overachieving intern. Candice and Isobel played executive assistants with minimal zeal, instead observing and sometimes toying with the others with a ruthlessness and acuity that they shared. Isobel wrote absurdist phrases on sticky notes and posted them in odd places. The average cloud is the same weight as 100 elephants. Candice intentionally tucked her skirt into her underwear to see which of the brokers would overcome his embarrassment to alert her. They made prank phone calls, and once when her boss asked for Chinese food for an important client from Hong Kong, she ordered fish with the heads still attached. They watched as the bankers tried all that much harder to keep up the pretext that everything was just fine. And they would laugh and laugh. Like now.
After several unsuccessful pauses, Candice finally came to a full stop. She had to wipe tears from her eyes and felt like she had openly exposed something fusty.
“Wow,” said Isobel. She had not laughed as hard at all. Her eyes were dry. She must not have needed it as desperately.
Candice grasped for something to say. “You do look thin.” Her throat was wet and her eyeliner smudged.
“You don’t, but I like a little chunk. It looks good. I like the colors too,” she said to Candice’s dress.
Isobel could be sharp, but at least she was honest, straightforward, and in that there was a kindness. The other mothers were expert at sneaking their meanness and insults inside compliments.
“I brought your kid a present.” Isobel reached into her jacket for a flat square wrapped in rice paper.
Candice handed her the highball with a generous thumb of scotch and accepted the gift. “Actually, it’s for you,” said Isobel. “I forgot to get something for the kid. But the kid might like it. Open it.”
Candice ran her thumbs over the beautiful paper. “Opening presents is Caleb’s number-one, all-time favorite thing to do.”
“Isn’t it your number-one favorite thing to do?”
“Yes, it is.”
“So why does the kid get all the fun?”
“Exactly. Fuck him.” Candice felt the blade of those words against her ribs. This was what going too far felt like. They sat. She started opening the present. Then stopped. “Wait.”
Candice got up and poured herself more drink. “OK, can you say that again? The last thing you said?”
“Yes.” She took a sip.
“Went too far?”
“Yes,” said Candice.
“OK, then—so why does the kid get all the fun?”
“You’re right. I’ll open it and share it with him later,” she said, no fuck, and then opened the present. It was a packet of exquisite origami papers neatly arrayed so that a tiny pointed sliver of each color was visible. A full spectrum of saturated opaques and patterns.
“It almost makes my mouth water,” said Candice. Isobel nodded in agreement. “Were you in Japan?”
“Last month. On my way to Seoul.”
“Is that where you were when I wrote to you?”
“No, Brazil. I went to Brazil after Seoul.” Isobel’s gaze retracted, she was remembering something.
“I guess that explains your sun-kissed complexion,” Candice said sarcastically. Isobel’s skin was pale as the whitest mushroom flesh.
Isobel touched her jawbone. “I had skin cancer a while ago,” she said. “No more sun.”
Candice held stiff, sorry, but Isobel showed no hurt, no expectation of sympathy.
“I’m fine,” she said. “No worries.” Her face reminded Candice of the president’s. Handsome, inscrutable. There were delicate hollows under her unjoking eyes, and her lips were full but unpainted and pursed, as if she were trying to keep them to herself.
“Anyway. Brazil. Brazil was amazing.”
“Who did you go with?”
“A guide. And my friend Sarah. We spent some time with a tribe.” She said a word that Candice didn’t understand. Something guttural. “It was an experience.”
Candice felt the flesh of her thighs spreading. The scotch wasn’t sitting well on top of the three bowls of sugary cereal she’d eaten in the pantry earlier. Isobel was opening the possibility of a conversation about deep jungle experiences, probably involving shamans and saving the planet. About her wildly adventurous companions who lived life unattached, fiercely and confidently. It made Candice anxious.
“Did you get a lot of mosquito bites?”
“Yes, quite a lot.” Isobel smiled with what looked to Candice like forgiveness but could have been pity. She pointed at the origami paper. “Make something.”
“I don’t remember how.” She removed the tape and took out a cobalt-blue square, petulant. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I just liked the colors,” said Isobel, watching.
“I like them, too. I wasn’t complaining. But coming from you, I just thought, like, maybe it would fold itself or something.” This rudimentary gift made no sense. Isobel was usually so forward-thinking, surrounding herself with mysterious objects from the cutting edge.
Back at the firm, Isobel was always on time but often showed up smelling like cigarettes, wearing some cheap suit she’d picked up at Daffy’s. The back of her hand stained with a smudged bar stamp. The venture capitalists didn’t pay attention to details. She was a skirt. Like Candice. They did their jobs. Typing, making spreadsheets, tearing heat-sensitive paper out of the facsimile machine, replacing soggy coffee filters. Cleavage was appreciated. A certain technical ability was required. Candice found a sense of peace plugging in DOS code so that the blinking digits on her algae-green computer screen correlated with an instruction sheet.
But Isobel had gotten bored with it. For entertainment, she started trying to understand what they were doing exactly. “These dicks are making millions of dollars,” she had said to Candice. “Do they seem all that bright? Or hardworking?” Then the computer tech she’d been flirting with gave her a CompuServe account as a present. He showed her how to send messages over the internet. She decided to introduce the firm to the concept of email, the World Wide Web, and digital ticker tracking. It was that long ago. Early 90s. She saw the revolution coming and didn’t quake. She quickly bought up URLs for a number of major companies that hadn’t yet gotten into the game—Merck, Pepsi, Sony, Exxon—so that they would have to buy the addresses back from her at hugely inflated prices. Isobel went from secretary pool to tech adviser to running her own multimillion-dollar company in two smooth gear changes. Now, a devoted crew of geniuses worked for her out of a loft in Tribeca while she traveled the world, though rarely north of 23rd Street.
The speed had given Candice anxiety attacks. Things were moving too fast. Becoming increasingly intangible. Maybe that’s why Isobel had given her a gift of paper now. Maybe she recognized that Candice belonged in a sandbox with blocks and Play-Doh. She didn’t even want to know what had happened in Brazil.
“You think I’m a philistine,” Candice said.
“I think you remember how to fold something.”
Candice flipped the paper over. She didn’t like how it was white on the other side. She wanted complete blueness through and through. “I could probably make one of those coke envelopes...”
“Do you still do cocaine?” The word on her tongue suddenly sparked a craving she hadn’t felt in a very long time.
“No. No coke. No speed. I quit smoking too.”
Candice felt sticky with self-loathing. She had trouble finding the next thing to say. She flipped the paper, folded it into a triangle. “I can fold a cootie catcher, you know, one of those fortune-teller things.”
“Now you’re talking.”
Candice folded triangles toward the center of the square. A test of her motor skills. “But we have to come up with the fortunes to write inside. Otherwise it won’t function. That’s the hard part. We have to come up with eight different ones, one for each triangle.”
“You write four fortunes, and I’ll write four,” said Isobel.
“I suggest you write the meanest things you can think of. Write the things you think would hurt me most.”
“Is that what you call fun?
“Eye-opening,” said Isobel.
“What will you write?”
“You’ll see when we play.”