Dance, every chance you get

As a twenty-six-year-old Janet Maurer knelt on the basement floor of the New York Public Library on the afternoon of April 5th 1984, she felt like her life was over before it had even begun.

‘There’s a phone call for you,’ Marge, one of the senior librarians, appeared in the doorway. ‘It sounds important.’

Janet stood up, her legs groaning. She slapped the dust off her knees and followed Marge to the office upstairs.

At the other end of the line was a breathless Ethan.

‘You have to see this. Find an excuse to come meet me as soon as you can.’

‘What’s going on? Where are you calling from?’

‘I’m at a payphone in the lobby of the Empire State building.’

‘Are you ok?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. But you have to come meet me right now. It’s fantastic. You can’t miss it.’

Janet glanced at Marge, who was sitting at her desk barely hiding the fact she was eavesdropping.

‘What’s going on?’ Janet asked.

‘I’ll tell you when you get here. I’m nearly out of quarters. There’s no time to explain. Just come.’

‘I’m not sure that’s going to be possible.’

‘Just say there’s been a leak in the apartment, or your grandmother died, or I’m in hospital, whatever.’

Janet thought about the afternoon that lay ahead of her, crouched on the dusty floor of a windowless basement.

‘Ok, what hospital did you say you were in?’

‘That’s my girl.’

‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’ She hung up and turned to Marge. ‘Ethan’s had a fall, sprained his ankle. I need to go pick him up.’

‘How did he manage to do that?’

‘He was at work at the store. He was carrying a box of records downstairs and stumbled.’

‘Can’t he get a cab home by himself? Does he really need you to drop everything just for a sprained ankle?’

‘He’ll need my help to get into the apartment. We live in a walk-up.’ Why was Marge being so difficult? The library could do without Janet for one afternoon. No one was going to die if she left the cataloging until tomorrow.

‘Just go,’ Marge sighed. ‘But don’t make a habit of this.’

‘Thank you.’

Janet grabbed her things and rushed outside, past the lions, and into the park. Even though her job as an archivist was tedious, if you made her choose a place to be held captive for the rest of her life it would be there, in the austere Beaux Arts Building, amongst the books of the public library, with those grey lions standing guard outside protecting her.

She hurried through Bryant Park and then turned onto Fifth Avenue.

She saw it before she reached Ethan, the enormous piece of black plastic billowing in the wind from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. It looked like a huge funeral flag hoisted high over the city set against a dark, portent sky.

Ethan was with a group of onlookers on the sidewalk opposite craning their necks to see the spectacle. His brown hair was wild and unkempt, as usual, and his small round glasses were damp from the drizzle. He smiled as she approached. Even now, on this overcast afternoon, his cheekbones caught the light, giving his face that familiar, happy look.

‘What is that?’ Janet asked.

‘It’s a 3,000 pound inflatable King Kong. It’s supposed to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the movie.’

‘Why does it look like an oversized garbage bag?’

‘Apparently, they can’t get it to inflate properly because of the strong winds. Isn’t it hilarious?’

‘What a mess. This is what you dragged me out of work for?’

‘C’mon, don’t you think it’s funny? I thought you had to see it.’

‘Ok, I’ve seen it. Now what?’

‘Don’t you want to see what happens? I want to see if they can get him blown up. If they do, I bet he’ll just fly away. Wouldn’t that be strange? Imagine seeing King Kong floating past your office or apartment.’

Janet shivered in the cold. ‘Fine, but can we have a coffee whilst we watch?’

They went to a diner across the street and sat in a booth by the window. Janet stared out at the black mass wafting manically in the sky. This city was pathetic. It couldn’t even get its act together to blow up a large balloon. She took a sip of coffee. It tasted like charcoal.

‘What are we doing?’ Janet said.

‘What do you mean? Tonight? I’d thought we’d just stay at home, but, if you want to go out, I’m sure we could find a party.’

‘There’s always a party. That’s part of the problem.’

‘What problem?’

Janet paused, struggling to find the words to express what she was feeling. Some wordsmith she was.

‘Yesterday, I was walking through the park, and I saw a homeless woman asleep at a table,’ she started. ‘She had a hold all at her feet; its contents are probably all that she has in the world. There were four newspapers piled high on the table in front of her, and she had her face down on top of them, her arms hanging limp at her sides. If it hadn’t been for the sound of her snoring, I would have sworn she was dead. Who is this woman, I thought. How did she get there? What’s her story? For all we know, she could have a college degree. Is she really in that situation because of circumstances beyond her control? Or did she make a list of poor choices that eventually led her to that moment?’

‘Are you calling me a poor choice?’ Ethan’s thick eyebrows knitted closer together.

‘No, not at all, but I feel so unburdened sometimes. I worry about what we’re drifting towards. I feel like we should be taking more control of our lives.’

‘You don’t like where our lives are headed?’

‘We both have so much potential, and I worry that we’re wasting it. I’m scared we’ll float through life, lost in a haze, without ever making a real decision, without ever finding an anchor.’

‘You are my anchor.’ Ethan reached across the table and took Janet’s hand in his. Janet turned her gaze away from him. She looked towards the rain-speckled window, staring up, once again, at the epic failure of the King Kong celebrations.

‘It’s April. Shouldn’t it be springtime already?’ she said.

‘C’mon let’s go.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘I’ll cook dinner.’

At home, Ethan opened the mailbox in their graffiti covered lobby.

‘Here, there’s two letters for you.’

One envelope had the return address of “The Atlantic” on the back. It was too thin to be good news. When magazines accepted your work they usually called you, or they sent a thicker letter with the contract. Not that Janet knew this from personal experience. But that’s what writer friends had told her.

The other envelope was neon pink. She knew exactly what that one contained. She shoved the mail in her bag. She’d open it later.

Upstairs, Janet squeezed her coat into the small wardrobe she shared with Ethan. Everywhere she looked there were books, magazines, coffee cups, clothes, shoes and records. It was like their belongings were staging a war of attrition, every day taking over more and more of the apartment. Four years ago, when she and Ethan had left Columbia in 1980 and moved downtown to this studio, the only things they had in their apartment were a mattress on the floor, a handful of books, their two Masters in American Literature certificates, which hung side by side on the wall, and Ethan’s records. But it hadn’t mattered that their apartment had been small and empty. Their lives had been full to bursting with plans. Now it was the opposite. Their apartment was crowded, but their lives felt hollow.

As Ethan busied himself putting on music and unpacking the groceries, Janet opened the letter from The Atlantic. It was as she suspected.

‘Another rejection,’ she muttered, scrunching it up in her hands.

‘Don’t worry, they don’t know real talent…’

‘It’s The Atlantic Ethan,’ she cut him off. ‘If anyone doesn’t recognize talent it’s me.’

‘You just have to hang in there.’ He came over and put his arms around her.

‘Am I am crazy for thinking that I can make a living out of being a poet? My mom certainly thinks so.’

‘What would your mother know? Her entire life she’s barely left Connecticut. She was a young woman at the same time as the Beat Generation. That was New York’s golden era. You and I would have given anything to have experienced that, and she practically lived on its doorstep but she only came into the city to see the Macy’s Parade. Why would you listen to her? What does she know about poetry? Or risk-taking? Or following your dreams?’

Janet extricated herself from Ethan’s embrace and flopped down on the bed, trying for the fiftieth time that day to brush the dust marks off her knees.

‘This library job was supposed to be temporary. But it’s been over three years, and I haven’t sold a single poem.’

‘Do you think I want to be working at Connect Vinyl for the rest of my life? But, until I sell my novel, I have to make money somehow.’

‘But at least you’re doing something you’re passionate about.’

Ethan had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. The DJs from the gay and black clubs were always coming to see him at the store looking for new sounds. It was through those DJs that she and Ethan had got into the club scene. They had even been to Studio 54 a couple of times, although it wasn’t one of Janet’s favorites. 54 was all theater. They spent their weekends soaring to narcotic summits, dancing wantonly for hours, and their weekdays shivering on a paranoiac cliff-edge, counting the minutes until they could breathe in another dusty line and escape the world once again. They were riding high on the crest of a wave, and Janet feared it was only a matter of time before it would come crashing down on top of them, and they would be left, washed up, choking on the shore.

‘Don’t worry baby-face,’ Ethan said in a fake Russian accent. ‘We have time. We are in the prime of our lives.’

Janet smiled weakly at Ethan’s silly accent. He claimed they had so much time, and yet they were doing nothing with it. She remembered the neon pink envelope, still lying in her handbag. Janet had been with Debra when she’d bought that stationery. At the time, Janet had thought it was a vulgar color for a wedding invitation, but she hadn’t said anything.

She would open it tomorrow at work. She knew what would happen if she opened it now. It was always the same. Ethan would roll his eyes and say how he didn’t see the point, and Janet would be expected to say something like, “why do people need some ceremony and a piece of paper to prove their love?” to which Ethan would respond “exactly, we have more faith in our relationship than that,” and they’d nod smugly at one another in agreement.

Whilst Ethan made a start on dinner, Janet poured herself a glass of wine and took a seat at their fold-down table. She opened her journal and started reading through her most recent poems. They were all insipid and lacking in substance. Was her work so boring because, at heart, she was still just a suburban girl from Connecticut who’d never really suffered? Ok, so they lived in a tiny studio, and she didn’t exactly love her job, but she and Ethan were happy together. Was that the problem? Was she too content to be a real poet?

She threw her journal to one side and picked up the newspaper she’d bought on the way home. “Reagan calls for ban on chemical weapons” read the headline on the front page. Inside, on the bottom corner of page two, was a picture of a young actress, probably no older than twenty-two. The article said she had come to New York less than a year ago from Minnesota to study theater. She had been raped and murdered by her landlord. It was the most typical of New York stories, worthy only of a couple of paragraphs on page two.

Every morning on her way to work, Janet had to step over junkies passed out in their doorway. She often saw cars lying burned out on Canal Street. Gangs of armed thugs stalked the subway. New York was turning into a third world city, and the only place Janet felt truly safe was here, at home, with Ethan.

She looked over at him chopping vegetables and singing along to the record player. She pictured them in years to come, as they hosted cocktail parties at their uptown apartment, and how they would think fondly of this little place. She imagined them telling people how they had ripped the door off the oven and used the oven as a bookshelf. They would laugh about her failed attempts to grow an herb garden on the inch-wide strip of natural light that came in from their single window. And they would thank God they no longer had black mold growing up the side of their shower.

She glanced down, again, at the smiling face of the dead actress staring out from the newspaper. It was shameful of her to question her life with Ethan like this. She should be counting her blessings instead. They both had jobs and came home every night to someone who they loved with all their hearts. What did it matter if they had not yet achieved the success their Ivy League education had taught them to expect? One day they would have a fine home together and kids too. Her girlfriends were always saying she and Ethan would have such smart, beautiful children, and Janet believed them. What reason did she have not to? Together, she and Ethan could do anything. She just needed to stay the distance.

The next morning, as Janet lay in bed trying to muster the energy to stand up, Ethan danced around with a mug of coffee in his hand.

‘Ok, I’m off. I’ll see you at home tonight after work.’ He leaned down to kiss her goodbye.

‘Why are you leaving so early?’ she mumbled.

‘It’s a big day today. We’ve got a shipment of records coming in from London and I can’t wait to hear them. But don’t worry, I’ll be home before you tonight.’

That evening, when Janet got home, the place was empty. Ethan was probably still at work, having lost track of time listening to the new records with one of his DJ friends. At around ten, she went downstairs to the payphone in the lobby to call him at the store, but the phone had been vandalized, yet again, and wasn’t working. A man lay passed out by the entrance to the building. She hurried back up the stairs two at a time and locked the apartment door behind her. Checking it twice. At midnight, she got into bed alone. She wasn’t worried. Ethan had probably gone out to a party and wouldn’t be home until the middle of the night.

Sometime later, she was woken by the sound of knocking on her door.

‘Seriously?’ Janet grumbled, pulling herself out of bed. Ethan was always forgetting his key and waking her up at all hours to let him in.

She padded over to the door.

‘Ethan?’

‘Miss, is this the residence of Ethan Green?’

Janet put on the chain and slowly opened the door a fraction, taking care not to stand too close, so the person on the other side couldn’t touch her.

In the hallway stood two policemen, both in their mid-twenties, just like Janet. One was tall, blond, Scandinavian looking, with red cheeks and clear blue eyes. The other was shorter, Latino looking.

‘Miss, is this the residence of Ethan Green?’ the tall one asked.

‘Yes.’

‘And can I ask who you are?’

‘His girlfriend. What are you doing here? Where’s Ethan?’

‘Miss, we’re sorry it took us so long to get Mr. Green’s address. The Super let us into the building. May we come in?’

Janet unchained the door and swung it open.

‘Where’s Ethan? Why are you looking for him?’

The officers exchanged a look, as if telepathically debating something between the two of them.

An icy panic gripped Janet.

The tall one’s eyes fell to the ground, and the Latino looking one took a deep breath and spoke. ‘Miss, Mr. Green was fatally wounded in a shooting this afternoon.’

‘Fatally wounded?’ Janet repeated the words as if they were a foreign language.

‘There was an armed robbery at a store on Madison and 52nd. The owner pulled a gun on the robbers and a shoot-out ensued. Mr. Green was simply an innocent bystander.’

Janet shook her head. ‘No, there’s been some mistake. Ethan’s store is on 23rd and 8th.’

‘Miss, when you’re ready.’ The tall one stepped closer towards her. ‘We’d like to ask you to come with us to identify Mr. Green’s body.’

‘No,’ Janet said, her voice stronger than before. ‘It can’t be Ethan. He’d never be in Midtown during the day.’

‘Miss, it’s important that you come with us,’ said the Latino one.

A cold, damp tingle crawled across Janet’s skin, and her breathing became shallow and labored.

‘No, please listen to me, it’s not Ethan,’ she said, fighting to withhold her tears.

‘Is there anyone you would like us to call?’ the blond one asked.

Janet stepped back, away from them, clutching her nightgown to her body, breathing heavily.

‘There has to be some mistake,’ she spluttered.

‘Miss, you have our deepest sympathies. Are you sure there is no one we can call?’

‘No, no, no…it’s not him. He’ll be home any minute now.’

‘When you are ready, we’d like you to accompany us to the station.’

Janet tried to slow her breathing. None of this made any sense. She looked down at her bare legs, suddenly aware that she was standing in front of these men in nothing more than a short nightshirt. ‘Just let me get dressed,’ she whispered. The two officers turned their backs on her.

Mechanically, she pulled on a pair of jeans, a bra and a sweater, all the while trying to slow her panicked breath. It wasn’t her Ethan. There would have been no reason for him to be up in Midtown. He was safe, dancing like a lunatic in a club somewhere.

In the car, Janet barely spoke. Driving through the darkened city, she visualized, again and again, the moment when she would be taken to identify the body, the rush of relief that she’d feel when she saw they had made a mistake, the way she would beat and hug Ethan in both rage and delight when she got home and found him passed out on their bed—exhausted, but alive, after a night of partying. She saw it all with such clarity that she believed, with every cell in her body, that the future would unfold just how she had pictured it.

Flanked by the two officers and a couple of people in white coats clutching clipboards, Janet stepped into the morgue. It looked like an operating theatre, cold and clean.

She recognized it the moment she walked in, the outline of Ethan’s whip-thin body under the putrid green sheet.

‘No,’ she froze.

An older woman in her forties put her hand on Janet’s elbow and edged her closer towards the table, murmuring that even though this was hard, it was important. Someone pulled back the sheet. Janet glanced at his face for no more than a second.

It was her Ethan, his fine cheekbones even more eye-catching beneath his sunken eyes and the waxy sheen of his lifeless skin.

‘No.’ Janet’s howl was like a seismic wave, tearing up the earth beneath her feet, rising up from the very pit of her stomach. Her legs gave away, and a man’s arms caught her before she hit the ground. The two officers reached for her and carried her out.

‘Is there someone we can call?’ they kept asking.

‘No. No one.’ She didn’t want to see anyone. For then she would have to utter the words that Ethan was gone, and she couldn’t do that. Not yet.

Around 3am, the same two officers who had woken her up at the apartment just a few hours before drove Janet home.

As she was leaving the station, the Latino one handed her Ethan’s belongings in a clear plastic bag—his keys, his wallet, a packet of gum, a piece of paper, and a small box.

Alone in their studio, with trembling hands, she unfolded the paper. It was a note, in Ethan’s handwriting:

“It is the prerogative of an intelligent man to change his mind. We don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love, but I want one anyway. I want the world to know how much I love you. Will you grant me the absolute privilege of calling you my wife and, hopefully, one day, the mother of my children? Let’s make some great decisions together, starting with this one. Will you marry me?”

Janet opened up the box. There was a diamond ring inside. She collapsed, sobbing, on to the kitchen floor. She lay there, stripped red raw, disassembled, her head pressed against the cold tiles, completely detached from the living Universe. Hours passed, and the only sound she could hear was that of her own wails. She wept violently, wantonly, crazily.

Eventually, her body could no longer withstand the pain, and it simply shut down—her voice incapable of making any sound, her eyes out of tears, her muscles paralyzed with exhaustion. She lay there, still, silent, alone, lost.

And she might have lain there forever if reality had not come scratching. But, somehow, the sounds of normality started to sneak into her consciousness: traffic, sirens, her neighbors shuffling around in their apartments, flushing their toilets, having showers, watching TV, and arguing with their partners. This mundane soundtrack reminded her that the world kept turning, and she continued to cling to its surface, even though she had no reason to keep holding on, and no anchor pinning her down.

And, so, Janet got up and looked around at her and Ethan’s jumbled home. Ethan’s half-full coffee cup from yesterday morning was on the counter, cold now, his dirty socks lay at the foot of the bed, his spare glasses were on the bookshelf, and the ring he’d been buying for her when he was murdered lay in the corner, where Janet had thrown it, the blue morning light covering it in a melancholic haze. She could no longer stand to be here. She dragged herself up and climbed the fire escape to the roof.

The morning sun flooded the city below, like a tsunami. Forcing its way along narrow alleyways. Slivering, uninvited, through shutters and curtains, reminding New Yorkers that this day was going to happen, whether they liked it or not. The first day of Janet’s life without Ethan had already begun, and there was nothing she could do to stop it from being so.

The above is taken from the upcoming novel The Belfast Girl.

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