My mother is known for throwing lavish parties and not wearing underwear. We have morning glories that crawl up our living room pillars. We live in a fifty five-story building made of glass boxes. People put carpets on the floor and hang tapestries on the ceiling so that neighbors from above and below cannot see in. When my mother throws parties, she rolls up the living room carpets and squeezes them into our linen closet and folds up the tapestries and fits them under our beds.
My mother wore a grey silk dress with thigh high slits when she held a party to benefit the National Audubon Society. While she walked, the back panel billowed out behind her. When she stood, martini in hand, fingers tickling a potted plant, the panels hung slightly away from her body, as if blown by an invisible fan.
If you crouched down slightly and tilted your head, you could see in between the panels. Tonight she had blue, green, and silver crystals in the design of a peacock feather extending from her belly button over her pubic bone.
“Honey,” she whispered to me, as Emma, our maid, made sure that no crystals had fallen off. “Make sure Christopher Oswald has enough to drink.”
I sat on the couch while she instructed the women, their bodies pasted with black and red feathers, to walk around the room with hors d’oeuvres. I watched her tell the florists that she wanted each floral arrangement to have three peacock feathers fountaining out of geraniums.
“Honey,” she whispered to me again. “I think you should wear your green and blue silk dress. I think it goes well with the theme. And I expect you’ll wear the silk shoes I bought you last week.”
“Who is Christopher Oswald?” I asked.
“This wonderful man I met at a benefit two weeks ago.” She lowered her voice. “He’s very wealthy.”
Mrs. Darla Fitz arrived first. “Early, that cow,” my mother whispered and smiled, “Darla, how wonderful!”
Christopher Oswald was the thirty-fourth guest to arrive. My mother greeted him with a peck on the cheek, resting her hand on his forearm.
“Mm, lovely,” she said, stroking his coat sleeve. Deep plum, cashmere.
“Thank you,” he nodded his head.
“I’m glad you could make it,” she simpered and looked at me, twisting her lips in a half smile. “You’ve met my daughter?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Christopher Oswald said, raking a hand through his silvering hair and showing me his teeth. His face was tanned like he’d just returned from a week in the Caribbean. But his skin looked soft. “Beautiful girl, how old is she?”
“Just thirteen,” my mother said. “But to look at me you wouldn’t know it.” She inclined her head. That was my cue.
“Martini?” I asked.
“With pleasure,” he took it and turned back to my mother.
“Let me introduce you to some people I think you might like.” She said, extending her arm.
“With pleasure,” he said and took her arm. He spoke with a slight accent, but I couldn’t tell if it was an affectation or if he was from England.
I went over and sat by the window. Central Park was dark and empty. The tops of the trees glitterred with frost.
Our glass box is on the thirty third floor. A young woman named Patricia Pulman lives above us. She breeds dogs – great Huskies, some as big as a small couch. Sometimes, she eats dinner with us and my mother whispers when she leaves, “poor Patricia, her family bought her that apartment to help her find a husband but it has only succeeded in finding her dogs.” When I read on the couch in the living room, I can occasionally see them – silvering grey clouds, their fur pressed flat against the glass – lounging above me.
I felt someone’s hand brush my bare shoulder. “Beautiful view,” Christopher Oswald said.
I stood up, “Can I get you another drink?” I didn’t wait for his answer.
When I got back, he was sitting on the couch.
“Thank you.” he took the martini from me and patted the cushion next to him.
“Would you like some?” he offered me his glass.
I took a sip and handed it back to him.
“Beautiful apartment too,” he said. I could see the brown speckles in his blue eyes, the faint shadow of stubble on his cheeks, the lines around his mouth. His teeth were very white. I wondered if he had them whitened. If he looks at himself in the mirror like my mother does and pulls back the skin around his eyes, studies his nose, measures his eyebrows. My mother goes to the dentist once a month for a professional bleaching. She has her hair colored pale blonde every three weeks. She gets an injection between her brows five times a year.
I nodded and looked around the room. I saw my mother, watching us as she talked to Mr. Daniel H. Yung. Christopher Oswald followed my eyes. My mother smiled and wiggled her fingers. She shifted so that her dress floated around her legs and her crystal peacock feather glinted teasingly. I looked back at Christopher Oswald but his expression remained the same, unreadable.
I stood up, pretending to stretch and he reached out his hand and rested it on the back of my leg, just above my knee. My chest hiccupped, I wanted to move away from him, but I hesitated a moment longer, then said, “I’m going to my mother.” He removed his hand and placed it on his thigh, palm up. His fingers twitched, like the legs of a dying beetle.
“Mr. Yung,” my mother said slowly, drawing out the “U.” “This is my lovely daughter, Sarah. Sarah, Mr. Yung is a professional bird-watcher. He has worked closely with the Audubon Society for over twenty years.”
Mr. Yung clasped my hand and inclined his head.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said.
“If you’ll excuse me,” my mother was already looking elsewhere. She walked away in a swish of fabric.
“And what do you do, young lady?” he asked me.
“I go to school,” I responded.
“And are you studious at school?” he asked me.
I looked over my shoulder. My mother and Christopher Oswald were sitting close together on the couch. “Not very,” I responded. I wondered what they were talking about and if he was resting his hand on her thigh. Would she feel its weight and warmth? Or would she move his hand away, tell him he would get her silk dress dirty. When I was younger I would crawl into bed with her if I couldn’t sleep. Get out, she would lightly push me away; I’ve already washed, don’t get the sheets dirty.
“Well,” Mr. Yung began. “Education is one of the most important things for a young lady like yourself.”
“I do well in school,” I offered. “My teachers think I’m pretty smart. I play flute and I’m in the school plays.”
“Yes,” Mr. Yung nodded, “but working hard is the most important thing.” I glanced over my shoulder again. My mother threw her head back and laughed.
Mr. Yung was leaning in expectantly. “Excuse me, please, I’m expected to get Christopher Oswald a drink.” I said him, and walked into the kitchen.
“Two martinis,” I told one of the bird girls.
“For you?” she asked.
“For Christopher Oswald and my mother.” I curled my lip like I’ve seen my mother do when she speaks to waiters or nail polish technicians.
She handed me the drinks and I made my way through the crowd toward the couch. I cleared my throat. Christopher Oswald and my mother looked at me.
“Martini,” I said and handed him one. I took a sip of the other.
“Honey,” my mother annunciated. “Are you sure you want to drink that?”
“I’m fine,” I said and took another sip. I moved to the window and lightly tapped my forehead against it. I could see a faint reflection of my face, distorted in the glass. I could see my mother and Christopher Oswald. He was looking at me. I looked upstairs – but Patricia Pulman had rolled out her carpets and I couldn’t see her silver, Husky clouds.
“Darling!” I heard a woman’s loud voice. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
My mother stood up. “Anna, how nice.” She said, touching cheeks with Anna Davis.
“Come dear,” Anna Davis said. “I want you to meet my date. He’s a charming gentleman.”
“Anna Davis dates men for a living,” my mother likes to say. Until one Tuesday night I shouted back, “Isn’t that what you do?”
Christopher Oswald stood up and came to stand next to me. He smelled musty like furniture just taken out of storage. He put his hand on the small of my back and I arched away from him. Please stop, I wanted to say, but the words were knotted in my throat.
“Will you show me where the restroom is?” he said softly. I nodded.
“Your mother’s restroom,” he said delicately as we approached the half bathroom in the hall. “It’s more private.”
“This one is for guests,” I frowned. “There’s a lock on the door.”
“Yes,” he said, “but your mother wants my advice on her bathroom décor.” He raised his eyebrow leisurely.
My mother’s bathroom is floor to ceiling pink marble. She has a large sink, surrounded by half-used perfume bottles and Chanel makeup bags. Her shower is separate from her ceramic, claw foot bathtub. Her toilet is Japanese.
Christopher Oswald angled his body so that I was pushed into the bathroom. He put his martini down on the sink.
“Do you mind if I close the door?” he asked and used his foot to kick it shut.
I shifted uncomfortably. “Don’t you want me to leave first?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light and steady. I could hear the noise from the party. I thought about the apartment: this glass box: transparent but who could see in?
“I hoped you might stay,” he took a step forward. Droplets of sweat had condensed on his forehead. He used his hand to tumble them down his temples.
He was so close I could smell his breath, stale, and feel it hot against my face. He placed his hand on my waist and stepped even closer, pressing me up against the sink. My elbow pushed his martini and one of my mother’s perfume bottles off the counter. The bottle shattered on the floor into a puddle of lilies, roses, rotting wood.
He stepped back. Dropped his hand and ran it through his hair. He smiled at me and tilted his head.
“Let me give you privacy,” I tried to make it a command. I turned to open the door. He reached out his hand but didn’t touch me.
“Beautiful pink marble,” he said. “It’s nice in here,” he said. “Calmer than outside. I prefer marble to glass.” We were in the one place in the house where no one could see in and no one could see out. I longed for the glass, to see the city, vast, anonymous and unthreatening. Had anyone in our building ever broken through the glass? Shattered the floor and fallen with the shards into the living room of the apartment below? Intruded on a space that was not his own? Christopher Oswald leaned his head back against the wall and jutted his hips slightly forward.
I felt space open between us. I nodded again, hoping he wouldn’t move. If he didn’t move and I didn’t move, we wouldn’t get closer.
“Anyway,” he said and went to the toilet. He pushed the seat up, unzipped his pants, peed, flushed the toilet, put the seat down. “Excuse me,” he said, reaching around me to wash his hands.
Our eyes met in the mirror. I opened the door and ran out of the bathroom, ran down the hall, ran through the living room, ran out of the house.
I stopped at the steps of the MET. I sat with my chin resting on my knees, watching the taxis drive down fifth. It was freezing.
I thought about Christopher Oswald, the sound of his pee striking the water in the basin, the toilet’s purring flush. I wondered if that too had been expected of me. Make sure Christopher Oswald has enough to drink.
I got up slowly and began to walk down Fifth Avenue. I took off my shoes and threw them in the trash on the corner.
The doorman looked at me concerned. “Everything all right, Sarah?” he asked as he held the elevator.
“Fine,” I said and rode up to the thirty third floor. The clock glowed: 1:38.
“It was wonderful to see you,” I heard my mother say.
“It was a pleasure,” Christopher Oswald said.
“You must come for dinner this week,” she put her hand on his upper arm.
“It would be a pleasure,” he inclined his head. “And it was a pleasure to meet you too,” he looked at me.
My mother leaned in his direction. He kissed her on the cheek. “Wonderful,” she said.
Christopher Oswald bent down. “May I give you a kiss?” he said to me.
My mother laughed but it was too loud and too high pitched to be real.
“You must have been quite charming, Sarah.” She said. She crossed her arms, pushing her breasts together.
I looked at Christopher Oswald. He kissed me loudly on the cheek, opening his lips slightly and letting his teeth graze my skin. “What will be for dinner?” He turned back to my mother, briefly, and left. She locked the door behind him.
I went to my room and took off my dress. I brushed my teeth for a long time. I rolled back the carpet on my floor and tried to look into the apartment below. It belonged to the Masons, an elderly couple, who held weekly wine tastings and had seventeen parrots. But their ceiling tapestry was up. My mother came into my room and picked up my dress.
“What happened to my perfume?” she threw the dress on my bed.
“I don’t want to have dinner with Christopher Oswald.” I said.
“You’ll clean it up in the morning,” she said and walked out.
I pushed my dress off the bed and got in, pulling my comforter on top of me.
Christopher Oswald, the air seemed to whisper.
I wondered what someone would see if they looked into my room. A shag rug, a large light-wood bed with peach colored sheets…but not just what they would see, what they would think: of me, of my mother.
The people I go to school with stare at my mother when she comes to see me perform as the Town Clerk or as Ensemble member number five. They stare at her silk open backed blouses, at her long wheat hair, at the way she leans to the husband next to her and says, “Do you see my daughter there? Don’t you think she looks like me?”
Christopher Oswald, the air seemed to whisper.
I heard the sound of the front door open, of carpeted footsteps.
“Emma?” I asked. I got out of bed, looked up and down the hall. I moved into the living room. The apartment glowed, as if it were the inside of some phosphorescent jellyfish, suspended in space among hundreds and hundreds of identical jellyfish, identical glowing glass apartments.
“Hello?” There was someone sitting by the window, one arm across the back of the couch.
“Sarah,” Christopher Oswald whispered. “I realized I left my sunglasses.”
I didn’t move toward the couch.
“Your doorman was kind enough to let me in,” he continued. “And I figured I’d take one last look at this view.” He tapped the couch. “Come, sit beside me.”
My pajamas clung to my thighs. “Do you want me to get my mother?” I asked.
“I’ll be leaving shortly,” he stood up. The top button of his shirt was unbuttoned. He rested a hand on my shoulder and then traced his fingertips down my bare arm.
“I don’t think that you look like your mother,” he said. “You’re more beautiful,”
“Did you have enough to drink?” I tried to take a step back, but Christopher Oswald held onto my arm.
“Not quite,” he smiled. “Can you get me another?” He crouched so that our faces were level. “May I give you a kiss?” The whites of his eyes were an eerie blue.
“May I give you a kiss?” he repeated. “May I give you a kiss?” the sentence echoed over and over again in my head. His mouth opened slightly and I felt the warm, wet of his saliva as he slipped his tongue between my lips. Holding onto my arm with one hand, he moved his other to my waist, under my shirt, up my stomach, over my left breast.
I pushed away and ran to the kitchen. I began to shiver, or maybe tremble. I felt exposed, as if I had unzipped myself and let everything I didn’t know seep out. What was I expected to do? What could I do? I thought I heard movement outside the door and ducked behind the refrigerator. I counted to ten. Was my mother awake?
Please leave, I whispered. Please leave, I said louder. Please leave, I shouted.
My mother burst into the kitchen, eye-mask pushed up her forehead.
“Sarah?” she spun around. “What are you doing?”
“Get him to leave.” I didn’t move.
“Christopher Oswald.” I began to cry.
“Christopher Oswald?” my mother hissed. “Christopher Oswald left hours ago. Get back to bed.”
“No, he’s in the living room.” I moved toward her. She took a step back.
“There’s no one in the living room.”
“He’s there. He was just there. He came back for his sunglasses.”
“Sunglasses? You’re overtired. Go to bed.”
“No, he’s there. I swear he’s there.”
But the living room was empty.
“The door is locked,” my mother said. “No one is here.” She paused. I wondered if she was going to say something more. If she was going to reach out and take my hand, or arm, or shoulder. But she walked to the wall, trailed her fingertips along the glass, and left the room.
I moved to where Christopher Oswald had been sitting. The couch was cold, undisturbed.
Christopher Oswald, I whispered. I moved to where my mother had been and pressed my fingertips to the glass.