quality? Which of my girls could I possibly live without?
“Ah, yis, how are you?” Roxana said now, eyeing the jangling tangle Mercedes was clutching. There were about twenty keys on the ring.
“One of these has to be for the garbage bins, right?” Mercedes asked.
“Are those James’s?” Roxana asked.
I nodded, but Mercedes said, “Well, technically, they belong to the building. They belong to the Zuckermans.”
Roxana raised her arm as if she was going to ask something else, but changed her mind.
“Aw kay. Well,” she gazed at the keys, “keep me on zuh post.”
Mercedes looked confused, but I answered, “We will, we’ll keep everyone posted.”
I should get a job at the U.N., I thought. I was really good at bridging cultural divides. I could start out as a hostess of some sort, shepherding the wives of foreign leaders around the city, showing them the true gems. Not the Olive Gardens and the Gaps and the other insidious chain predators that had tragically devoured New York. Not the stifling department stores or the Empire State Building, but the excavated, 17 th -century ruins beneath Broad Street and the spice markets in Jackson Heights. The hidden gardens behind the Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street and the peaceful, abandoned stretch of Pier 40’s western end, one of the few places a New Yorker could be alone outside. The ex-cons playing chess with the stockbrokers in City Hall Park and the sunset on the Brooklyn Heights promenade. The aquatic memorial of the Merchant Marine who drowned over and over, each time the Hudson River lapped over his head.
The first lady of Iran/Iraq/Libya would confess during a stroll past the Chelsea Market waterfall how refreshing it was to speak candidly—a decade and a half with the Sterling Girls would turn out to have been training for my true calling—and we’d forge a plan for peace between our countries. I would pitch my idea to save the world by getting young boys in aggressive countries to read novels. If these potential terrorists could only read something besides the Bible or the Koran, all the energy spent learning how to blow themselves up would instead be spent blowing their minds with Steinbeck, Defoe, Marquez, Dickens, Lahiri, Eliot, Fitzgerald, and Patchett. We would share the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roxana took a last glance around the room, studied Mercedesand me carefully for a moment—which I found immensely flattering—and then headed upstairs.
“You think we’ll ever be that hot?” Mercedes wondered. I shook my head.
“Ready to be super?” Mercedes asked, and slipped through the tape and out onto the landing.
“No. Not at all.” She laughed, but I wasn’t kidding. I wanted to go stick twenty keys into a garbage hold about as much as I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor.
Mercedes considered me across the police tape. For the first time in the fourteen years I’d known her, I detected the faintest hint, the barest trace, the most infinitesimal squeak of… disapproval. My heart sank. Since the age of six, she had sawed away at her viola for an hour every morning before school and then for four hours—
every day after school and what seemed like all day on weekends. Summers were filled with music camps and competitions and auditions and more practicing. At every turn, from her auditions for conservatory to her acceptance as third chair violist in the New York Philharmonic, she had battled the subtle prejudices that no one in the music world would ever admit to harboring. And not once had she complained.
I sighed. I could live, just barely, with my parents’ disappointment, but I could not wake up in the morning if I thought my friends were disgusted with me.
Lemonade. I had to go make lemonade. Out of garbage.
O NE WEEK LATER, I’D NOT ONLY BECOME AT EASE IN JAMES’S apartment, I’d begun to think of it as my office. Every inch of the living room was covered in crumpled, smudged paper, and not