I’ve never been inside an ambulance before, and it’s just as mortifying to snort awake in front of two sober professionals as I’d imagine it would be. A female paramedic with a permanent furrow etched into her forehead watches me, expression severe. Monitors beep. When I look around, my head becomes a rocket ship, counting down to some manner of combustive event. My arm is sore—no, not just sore, screaming. A glance down tells me it’s already restrained in a sling.
With the distant roar of an oncoming train, I remember being pushed onto the tracks.
Someone pushed me onto the subway tracks!
My heart begins doing a chaotic version of kung fu in my chest and the panicked tempo is echoed by the various machines surrounding me. I sit up, struggling against the monumental wave of nausea, and croak, “Did you catch him?”
“Whoa, whoa.” With concern in her eyes, the paramedic—her name tag reads Rossi—gently urges me back down. “You’re okay.” She nods at me with confidence. “You’re okay.”
And then she presses a card into my hand.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
I flip it over, wondering if the other side says,
Who to call when a drunk dude pushes you onto the tracks
Unfortunately, it does not.
I look back up at her, feeling my face heat in indignation. “I didn’t jump.”
Rossi nods. “It’s okay, Ms. Bakker.” She misreads my mystified expression and adds, “We got your name from your purse, which we recovered just off the platform.”
“He didn’t take my purse?”
She presses her lips into a frown and I look around for backup. There are actually two paramedics here—the other is a scruffy Paramedic of the Month calendar-model type who is diligently charting something from where he stands just outside the ambulance. His name tag reads Gonzales. Beyond, a cop car is parked at the curb, and a pair of officers chat amiably near the open driver’s-side door. I can’t help but feel this isn’t the smoothest way to intervene in a potential suicide situation: I’ve just pig-snorted, my skirt is awkwardly bunched near my hips, the crotch of my tights is somewhere south of the equator, and my shirt is unbuttoned to make room for the adhesive cardiac monitors. A suicidal individual might suffer a touch of humiliation here.
Scooching my skirt down with as much grace as I can manage, I repeat, “I didn’t jump.”
Gonzales looks up from his paperwork and leans against the ambulance door. “We found you there, sweetie.”
I screw my eyes closed, growling at his condescension. This still doesn’t add up. “Two paramedics just happened to be wandering through the subway right after I fell onto the tracks?” He gives me a tiny flicker of a smile. “Anonymous caller.
Said there was someone on the tracks. Didn’t mention anyone pushing her. Nine times out of ten it’s an attempt.”
I see movement just outside the ambulance, at the curb. It’s dark out, but it’s definitely him, holy shit, and I see him just as he stands. Calvin meets my eyes for the briefest pulse before startling and jerking his face away. Without another look back, he turns to walk down Eighth Avenue.
“Hey!” I point. “Wait. Talk to him.” Gonzales and Rossi slowly turn.
Rossi makes no move to stand, and I stab my finger forward again. “That guy.”
“He pushed you?” Gonzales asks. “No, I think he’s the one who called.”
Rossi shakes her head; her wince is less sympathetic, more pitying. “That guy walked up after we arrived on scene, said he didn’t know anything.”
“He lied.” I struggle to sit up farther. “Calvin!”
He doesn’t stop. If anything, he speeds up, ducking behind a taxicab before jogging across the street.
“He was there,” I tell them, bewildered. Jesus, how much did I drink? “It was me, that busker—Calvin—and a drunk man. The drunk guy was going for my phone, and shoved me off the platform.”
Gonzales tilts his head, gesturing to the cops. “In that case, you should file a police report.”
I can’t help it—the rudeness just flies out of me: “You think?” I’m given another flicker of a smile; no doubt it’s because I don’t look the part of a ballsy back-talker with my saggy tights and unbuttoned shirt with pink polka dots.
“Holland, we suspect your arm is broken.” Gonzales climbs inside and adjusts a strap on my sling. “And you may have a concussion. Our priority now is getting you down to Mount Sinai West. Is there anyone who can meet you there?”
“Yeah.” I need to call Robert and Jeff—my uncles. I look up at Gonzales, remembering how my phone was in my hand one moment, and I was being flung onto the tracks the next. “Did you also find my phone?”
He winces and looks up at Rossi, who gives me her first— apologetic—grin. “I hope you have their number memorized.” She lifts up a Ziploc bag holding the shattered remains of my beloved device.
Once my head is checked (no concussion) and my right arm is casted (fractured ulna), I file a police report from my hospital bed. It’s only when I’m speaking to the two intensely intimidating officers that I register that I was avoiding making eye contact with the man grabbing me. I didn’t get a good look at his face, though I can quite accurately describe his smell.
The cops exchange a look before the taller one asks me, “The guy got close enough to grab your jacket, yell at you, and shove you over onto the tracks, but you didn’t see his face?”
I want to scream, Obviously you have never been a woman running away from a creepy dude before!, but instead let them move on. I can tell from their expressions that my lack of a physical description dissolves the credibility of my I-didn’t-jump story, and in the wake of this mild humiliation I decide it would seem even more suspicious if I knew the name of the busker at the subway and he still failed to stick around to help me out. So I don’t bother to mention Calvin by name, either, and they jot down my generic details with only the vaguest display of investment.
After they leave, I lie back, staring up at the blank gray ceiling. What a crazy night. I lift my good arm, squinting at my watch.
Holy shit, it’s nearly three. How long was I down there?
Above the dull throb that painkillers don’t seem to dim, I keep seeing Calvin standing up from where he’d been waiting at the curb. It means something that he was still there when I came to, doesn’t it? But if he was the anonymous caller—and I assume he must have been because we all know the zombie didn’t have a phone—why didn’t Calvin tell the police that someone pushed me? And why lie and tell them he wasn’t a witness?
The telltale rushing click of dress shoes on linoleum crescendoes from the hallway, and I sit up, knowing what’s coming.
Robert bursts past the curtain, followed more smoothly by Jeff.
“What. The. Fuuuuuuuck.” Robert stretches the last word into about seventeen syllables, and takes my face in his hands, leaning in, examining me. “Do you realize how freaked out we’ve been?”
“Sorry.” I wince, feeling my chin wobble for the first time. “My phone got knocked out of my hand.”
Seeing my family’s panic makes the shock set in, and I start shaking wildly. Emotion rises like a salty tide in my chest. Robert leans in, pressing his lips to my cheek. Jeff steps closer, too, resting a gentle hand on my knee.
Although he isn’t related to me by blood, I’ve known Uncle Robert my entire life; he met my mother’s younger brother Jeff several years before I was born.
Uncle Jeff is the calm one; it’s the midwesterner in him. He is steady, and rational, and deliberate. He is, you may have guessed, in finance. Robert, by contrast, is motion and sound. He was born in Ghana, and moved here when he was eighteen to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Jeff tells me that Robert had ten job offers when he finished, but he chose the position of youngest-ever concertmaster of the Des Moines Symphony because the two of them fell in love at first sight the weekend Robert was in town interviewing.
My uncles left Des Moines when I was sixteen and headed to Manhattan. By that point, Robert had been promoted out of the ensemble to become the conductor of the symphony. Moving off-Broadway, even as a musical director, was a big step down for him in pay and classical prestige, but musical theater is where Robert’s heart beats, and—maybe more importantly for them—it’s long been much easier for a dude to be happily married to a dude in New York than in Iowa. They have thrived here, and two years ago, Robert sat down and composed what would soon become the most popular production on Broadway, It Possessed Him.
Unwilling to live away from them for long, I came to Columbia for my MFA in creative writing, but have basically stalled out. Being a baby graduate with an MFA in New York makes me a mediocre guppy in an enormous school of brilliant fish. Without an idea for the Great American Novel or any aptitude for journalism, I was virtually unemployable.
Robert, my savior, got me a job in theater.
My official title is archivist—admittedly a strange role for a twenty-five-year-old with zero Broadway experience—and given that we already have a million photos of the production for the program, I’m keenly aware that this job was created solely as a favor to my uncle. Once or twice a week I’ll walk around, randomly taking pictures of sets, costumes, and backstage antics for the press agency to use on social media. Four nights a week, I work front of the house selling It Possessed Him T-shirts.
But unfortunately, I can’t imagine dealing with the wild bustle of intermission or holding my gigantic camera with only one good arm, and it punches an additional gust of guilt deep into my belly.
I am so useless.
I pull one of the pillows out from under my head and let loose a few screams into it.
“What’s going on, Buttercup?” Robert pulls the pillow away. “Do you need more medicine?”
“I need more purpose.”
He laughs to dismiss this, bending to kiss my forehead. Jeff’s gentle hand slips into one of mine in quiet solidarity. But Jeff—sweet, sensible, number-crunching Jeff—has found a love for throwing clay in the past year. At least he has the passion for pottery pushing him forward through the tedium of a Wall Street workday. I have nothing but my love for books other people have written, and the anticipation of seeing Calvin play guitar a few days a week at the Fiftieth Street station. After tonight’s stunt, I’m not even sure I’ll feel that anymore. The next time I see him, I’ll be less inclined to swoon, and more inclined to get up in his face and ask why he allowed me to be thrown under the proverbial bus. Or train, as it were.
Maybe I’ll go back to Des Moines while this fracture heals and take some time to think about what I really want to do with my degrees, because when it comes to liberal arts, one useless degree plus another useless degree equals zero jobs.
I look up at my uncles. “Did you call Mom and Dad?” Jeff nods. “They asked if they should come out.”
I laugh despite my dark mood. I’m sure that without even seeing the extent of my injuries, Jeff told them not to worry. My parents hate the urban bluster of New York so much that even if I were broken in half, in traction, it would still be better for everyone if they stayed in Iowa. Certainly it would be less stressful for me.
Finally, Jeff eases down on the mattress next to me and glances up at Robert. I look up and realize that it’s one of the mattresses that’s sold online. It was a Nectar mattress.
I notice that Jeff licks his lips before he asks something difficult. I wonder whether he knows he does it. “So, what happened, Hollsy?”
“You mean, why did I end up on the C line tracks?” Robert gives me a knowing look. “Yes. And since I’m confident the little suicide intervention advice we were just given in the waiting room was unnecessary, maybe you can tell us how you fell.”
“A guy cornered me. He wanted my phone and when I got too close to the tracks, he shoved me over.”
Robert’s jaw drops. “That’s what was happening when you called?”
Jeff’s cheeks go brilliant red. “Did you file a—”
“Police report? Yeah,” I tell him. “But he was wearing a hoodie, and you know how making eye contact with crazies only encourages them, so I couldn’t say much other than that he was white, probably in his thirties, bearded, and drunk.”
Jeff laughs dryly. “Sounds like most of Brooklyn on a Friday night.”
I turn my eyes to Robert. “A train had just left, so there weren’t any other witnesses.”
“Not even Jack?” Both uncles know about my subway crush.
I shake my head. “His name is Calvin.” Answering the question that forms in their eyes, I say, “I’d had a couple cocktails and asked him.”
Robert grins down at me. “Liquid courage.” “Liquid idiocy.”
His eyes narrow. “But you’re telling me Calvin didn’t see anything?”
“That’s what he told the paramedics, but I think he was the one who called them.”
Robert slides a sturdy arm around me, helping me up. “Well, you’ve been cleared to leave.” He kisses the side of my head and utters six perfect words: “You’re coming home with us tonight.”
I’m lucky enough to live alone in Manhattan—an absurd rarity, and owed entirely to the generosity of my uncles. Robert, for the job, of course, and Jeff because he makes a crap ton of money and pays a pretty big chunk of my rent. But as much as I love living in my little apartment, I’ll admit I’m glad to not be there tonight. Going home with a broken arm to my small but lovely space would only remind me that I am a useless, phoneless, privileged heap of bones who is so pitiful she let a drunk dude harass her and push her off a subway platform. Being at Jeff and Robert’s is cushy, but at least here I can scrounge up minimal value: after some sleep, I am the board game companion Jeff wishes he would find in Robert. I am the absurd singeralong Robert always wants in his company.
And even with one arm, I am the cook that neither of them will ever be.
Jeff takes Tuesday off to make sure I’m okay, and when we’re all up and moving, around noon, I whip up a decent eggs Benedict for the three of us. Even with only one good arm I manage a better outcome than either of them would have. Robert fell in love with the dish sometime back in the nineties, and as soon as I was competent with a blender and frying pan he informed me that it needed to be my specialty because there is Hollandaise sauce on it. “Get it? Get it?” he always adds.
Jeff and I still groan every time.
The afternoon rolls by with the three of us curled up on the enormous couch, watching Brigadoon and An American in Paris. Robert told me to take the night off, and he doesn’t need to be at work until around five today anyway. I know I won’t see Calvin tonight, so I’m trying—and failing—to banish him from my thoughts. The memory of my first glimpse of his face and voice is blurred by a cocktail of feelings: First, there’s disappointment. He was my happy place . . . why was I compelled to venture outside my predictable routine and ruin it by speaking?
Next, there’s anger and confusion. Why didn’t he tell the paramedics the truth? Why did he run away?
And finally, there’s attraction . . . I still really, really want to make out with him.
With a hammering heart, I jog down the stairs into the station the next morning, bag tight to my hip as I nudge past the slower-moving commuters. At the bottom, I pull up short, always unprepared for the sound of Calvin tearing through more up-tempo, elaborate pieces. Most days, he’s strictly classical guitar. But for whatever reason, on Wednesdays he seems to favor flamenco, chamamé, and calypso.
The crowd is thick at 8:45. It smells like dirty steel and spilled soda, coffee and the pastry the guy next to me is unself-consciously shoving in his mouth. I expected to feel at least some emotional turbulence when returning to the scene of my near death, but other than wanting some answers from Calvin, I don’t. I’ve been here so many times that the banality of my memories still overrides the trauma. It still just feels . . . ooh, busker and meh, subway.
I take the last few seconds to rally before Calvin comes into view. I’m generally not one for confrontation, but I know I’ll never stop overthinking what happened Monday night if I don’t at least say something. His feet appear first—black boots, turned-up cuffs—then his guitar case and legs—a rip in the knee of his jeans—hips, torso, chest, neck, face.
A traffic jam of emotions always clogs up my throat when I see his expression, and how transported he becomes when he plays, even in the chaos of the station. I push them down, digging for the memory that he left me shouting like a crazy person in the back of an ambulance.
He looks up right as I move in front of him. The shock of eye contact makes my heart roll over and I wince; my righteous indignation has deserted me. His eyes drop to my cast, and then return directly to the strings of his guitar. Beneath the shadow of his stubble, I can see a flush climb over his cheeks. This acknowledgment buoys me. I open my mouth to say something just as an E train shrieks to a stop on the platform only a dozen yards away, and I’m quickly swallowed in the sea of people pouring out of it. Breathless, I look back through the crowd, only to catch Calvin packing up his guitar and jogging up the stairs.
Reluctantly, I move deeper into the station, nestled in the herd of commuters. It’s notable that he looked up, right? He doesn’t usually do that. It’s almost like he was waiting for me to appear.
The C train pulls into the station, too, and we all take a few steps closer to the tracks, closer to each other, ready to jockey for a spot inside.
And so begins my completely unnecessary ritual.
Robert is waiting for me in front of the Levin-Gladstone Theater when I approach. It’s probably more accurate to say that he’s waiting for the coffee I bring every Wednesday through Sunday. When I hand it over, I catch a flash of the telltale logo on the cup, and am sure Robert does, too. Madman Espresso is ten blocks away. If Robert realizes that I take the train every morning to an out-of-the-way coffee shop because I want to see Calvin, he doesn’t mention it.
He probably should. I need my ass kicked.
The wind blows Robert’s red scarf up and around his black wool coat, like a wild flag waving in the middle of the gray steel view along Forty-Seventh Street. I smile up at him, letting him have this quiet moment of transition.
Work is stressful for him lately: It Possessed Him has taken off in a really insane way in the past nine months, and all shows are sold out for the foreseeable future. But our lead actor, Luis Genova, only signed on for a ten-month run, which comes to an end in a month. At that point, screen legend Ramón Martín will take over, and with his intense Hollywood fame comes even more intense pressure on Robert to make sure the orchestra lifts Ramón into the Broadway stratosphere. If Robert wants to walk around outside a little and drink his coffee to procrastinate, I’m game. I’m not going to make him go into that building any sooner than he wants to.
He takes a sip, studying me. “How’d you sleep last night?” “Painkillers and emotional exhaustion ensured that I fell
like a brick into bed.”
Robert nods at this, eyes narrowed. “And how was your morning?”
He’s working up to something. I squint suspiciously back at him. “It was fine.”
“After what happened on Monday night,” he says, and lifts his cup, “you still went to see him at the station today?”
Damn it. I should have known he was onto me.
Maybe I will make him go inside. I pull open the heavy side-entrance door and bat my lashes in his direction. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Robert follows me into the cool shadows of the theater. Even with the sounds of people working behind the scenes and onstage, it’s quiet compared to the electric atmosphere of show time. “You go get me coffee at Madman every workday.”
“I like their coffee.”
“As much as I love that you bring me caffeine every morning, you and I both have perfectly functional coffeemakers in our apartments. You’re taking the subway ten blocks and back every morning for fancy espresso. You think I don’t see what you’re doing?”
I groan, turning to move deeper inside, toward the stairs leading to the second-floor offices. “I know. I’m a mess.”
Robert holds the stairwell door open, looking incredulous. “You still like him even after he left the paramedics thinking you were a jumper?”
“In my defense, I went there this morning in an attempt to confront him.”
I growl into another sip. “And I didn’t say anything.”
“I understand what it’s like to have a crush,” he says. “But do you think you should put him so squarely in your daily routine?” As we ascend, I poke his side with my undamaged left elbow. “Says the guy who moved from Philly to Des Moines
because he fell in lust with the waiter serving him a rib eye.” “Fair point.”
“And if you don’t approve, then point me in the direction of someone better.” I spread my hands, looking around us. “Manhattan—particularly musical theater—is a beast for single women. Calvin was a safe but fun little diversion. I never planned on getting nearly murdered in front of him, let alone actually speaking to him.”
We emerge from the stairwell, and Robert follows me into his office. It’s a tiny room along a hallway with four identically tiny rooms, and is in constant disarray, with sheet music everywhere and paintings, photos, and notes on Post-its lining every inch of wall. Robert’s computer is, I think, one generation older than the desktop I took to college six years ago.
He pokes at the keyboard to wake up his screen. “Well, I notice that Evan in strings is always looking at you.”
I do a quick mental file through his strings section. All that comes to mind is his lead violinist, Seth, and Seth is not attracted to the ladies. Even if he were, Robert wouldn’t let me date him even over his dead body; despite being invaluable to the production, Seth has a knack for throwing tantrums and stirring up drama within the ensemble. He is the only person I’ve ever seen make Robert truly angry.
“Which one’s Evan?”
Twirling a finger over his close-cropped hair, he says, “Long hair. Viola?”
Ah, now I know who he means. Evan is sexy in a Tarzan kind of way, but . . . the rest of him might be a little too wild. “Yeah, Bobert,” I say, holding up my hands, “but the fingernails on his bow hand . . .”
“What are you talking about?” Robert laughs.
“How can you not see this? It’s like he’s plucking his strings with a shark tooth.” I shrug. “He just seems oddly carnivorous. I don’t think I could overlook it.”
“Carnivorous? You devoured your lamb chop last Wednesday. It was feral.”
He’s right. I did. “I cook great lamb, what do you want from me?”
From the doorway comes the sneering groan of my boss. “What the fuck are you even talking about?”
With a grin I answer, “Lamb,” just as Uncle Robert answers, “Man claws,” and Brian’s frown turns radioactive.
In an effort to keep nepotism at the minimum I don’t actually report to Uncle Robert but to the stage manager, the brilliant yet douchey Brian, who I’m convinced has odd collections of things at home, like a hoarder’s cave with every single back issue of National Geographic, or butterflies pinned to dusty boards.
“Super-cute family bonding.” Brian turns to sashay away, calling over his shoulder, “Holland. Stagehand meeting. Now.”
With a last zany smile thrown to Robert, I follow Brian downstairs to the stage and the weekly meeting awaiting us.
The stagehand team consists of twenty people. Brian oversees all the details—blocking, cues, props, scenery, and ensuring that Robert’s job runs smoothly—which means that he likes to claim credit for the current cult fever over Possessed. But the real heroes are the ones behind the curtain responding to his barked orders: the people Brian pleasantly refers to as his minions.
Don’t get me wrong—Brian’s job is a beast, and he is very good at what he does; the production runs smoothly, the sets are stunning and noted in nearly every one of the raving reviews the production receives. The actors hit their cues and the lighting is absolutely perfect. It’s just that Brian also happens to be a power demon with a rampant petty side. Case in point, just now a text arrives on my phone:
I see that your incapacitated, so I’m not quite sure how you plan to handle job duties this week
Brian’s inability to get the your/you’re distinction correct makes something itch deep inside my brain. And he’s texting me about this—while sitting a mere three feet away—not only to avoid direct confrontation (at which he is terrible) but also to give a clear message to the stagehand currently speaking that he doesn’t care what she has to say.
He might be a dick, but unfortunately, he’s also right. I can barely hold my phone with my right hand peeking out of the sling, I have no idea how I’ll maneuver my camera. It takes some time, but I manage to type a reply with my left.
Other than front of the house, are there things I can help with for the next couple of weeks?
It pains me to hit send on such a vulnerable text, it really does. Even though my tiny archivist salary is comprised of money from nearly every department, Brian feels the most put-out for even having to deal with me on a regular basis. I already know this job is a gift—I don’t need his gleeful reminders of that fact every time we interact.
Looks like you’re uncle needs more help than I do.
While the stagehand continues to update us on the progress in painting the new drop-down forest, Brian ignores her and types, sneering down at his phone.
It takes me a minute to understand his meaning, but when I do, it’s accompanied by an almost comically timed, deafening cymbal crash coming from the orchestra pit.
The entire group assembled for the meeting onstage stands from their seats and peers down as the aforementioned lead violinist, Seth, shoves clear of the percussion section, shoulders past Robert, and begins to storm up the center aisle.
I glance down at Seth’s chair; he left his violin just sitting there. I can’t stop staring at it—I’ve heard from Robert that Seth’s violin cost upward of forty thousand dollars, and he just plopped it on his chair before leaving in a huff. From the second position, Lisa Stern leans over, gingerly picking it up. I’m sure she’ll return it to him later; no doubt Seth assumes she will, too. What a dick.
He has tantrums all the time, but for some reason, the stillness in the theater that follows this outburst feels profound.
My stomach drops.
Seth has three long “duets” with the lead, and those segments are the heart of the soundtrack. Seth’s violin is more than part of the orchestra ensemble; although he doesn’t appear onstage, he’s truly one of the lead cast members and has even been featured on our primary merchandise, and in mainstream media. We can’t have a single performance without those solos. What transpired must have been major, because Robert’s calm voice carries through the entire theater: “Let me be clear, Seth. You know what it means if you walk out today: Ramón
Martín begins in a month, and you won’t be joining him.” “Fuck you, Bob.” Seth jerks his arms into his jacket, and doesn’t look back as he yells, “I’m done.”