As she circled around Astor place, her attention was diverted by a group of screeching teenagers turning the giant cube that was the centerpiece of the little square. They were trying to get the cube to spin as fast as possible, and it reminded Leigh of little children spinning a merry-go-round and that image seemed both absurd and fitting. What a mystery—the idea of living out one’s childhood in this city. It was difficult enough as a fully formed adult, but to have New York in you the way everyone else carries around their small towns, the way she carried around Oakdale—always there despite your unawareness of it, like the instinct to breathe. To have New York be a thing one has never had to learn, what must that be like? A mixed blessing, she imagined, like being really beautiful when you’re fourteen.
Leigh turned her borrowed key in the door; the apartment was full of the humid freshness of someone showering. She sat down on the couch, and for a moment just relished the feeling of not being on her feet. Shaun’s apartment was an awkwardly converted two bedroom with an obtrusive plaster wall coming in at an odd angle to cordon off the smaller of the two. No one lived in the other bedroom so it was full of Shaun’s things, mostly clothes and shoes that she never wore but still didn’t want to get rid of. The main bedroom was big and had beautiful and the windows had tall, old-fashioned panes. Then there was the tiny living room with a couch and old television that was never watched, and a long kitchen with a full set of implements that had, to Leigh’s knowledge, never been used. Like so many apartments in New York, this one was more of a stopover for changing clothes and occasionally sleeping than anything else.
“Oh hi Sweetie!” Shaun chimed, emerging a moment later from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. Shaun’s extraordinary long red hair clung in wet clumps to her pale, sparsely freckled shoulders. Without warning she pulled the towel off her body and wrapped it around her head. Shaun wasn’t shy about being naked, but who would be with her body? Her body was all breasts and long limbs; it was no wonder she unsheathed the thing like a weapon, it was a weapon.
“I was about to have a cigarette, come sit by the window with me while I smoke.” Shaun plucked a small cloth robe from the top of her laundry pile and wrapped it loosely around herself. The whole apartment had just a faint hint of stale cigarettes which meant that she smoked in every corner of every room though she only ever smoked by the window when she had visitors. Leigh thought it would be exhausting to care so much about what everyone thought that you would take the trouble to hide something like that. Then again, the things Shaun did and didn’t hide never made sense. Here was a woman you would never hear burp but would describe the latter half of a Brazilian wax to you in uncomfortable detail. Once she called Leigh late at night when she was in bed and from the sound of her breathing Leigh knew she was smoking; it had left an impression on her for some reason, the idea that Shaun would smoke in bed alone.
As children they had, for a brief period of time, been cousins. Shaun’s mother Marilyn had been married to Leigh’s Uncle Joe who had before that been married to her Aunt Sarah and was the father of two of her cousins. The poorly suited couple had met during a two year sojourn Marilyn had decided to take from her hometown of New York, to which she would afterwards return and raise Shaun. No blood was shared between the two girls but it seemed like a spectacular coincidence that they’d ended up in the same place after first knowing each other in that far-flung Washington suburb. The last time Shaun and Leigh had been together before New York it had been amongst numerous Barbies, their interactions governed by dictates particular to nine year old girls: whether or not each deemed the other’s Barbie collection acceptable and compatible to her own. There was a picture of them together in such a scenario, Leigh plump and dark eyed, Shaun as delicate and fair as dandelion fluff; both girls seated on the porch of Leigh’s childhood home, smiling wanly at the intruding adult who was wielding the camera and interrupting their game. Looking at the photo, they were certain they had been friends though neither of them actually remembered the other. Shaun had kept the picture for all those years and it was now framed and hung above her sofa. When Leigh asked why, she had answered that it was to remind herself that there had been some happiness in her childhood, that it hadn’t all been as she remembered it. Whenever Leigh looked closely at the photograph, which she had stopped doing since she’d moved in, she was struck by how little she herself had changed. She had the same pale, serious face, the same wide dark, almond-shaped eyes. Only her dark hair had really changed in form, loosening from the tight curls of her girlhood into long uneven waves. Even her body, though it had obviously grown and matured, had a certain squareness then that it would always retain. Leigh was as pretty in childhood as she would ever be later on, which was to say passably so, whereas Shaun’s hair had turned a pleasing pale shade of red and her body had continuously elongated, particularly from hip to thigh.