When I was nineteen, I spent a summer in New York City interning for Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine Zoetrope: All-story. It mostly entailed trying to strike a dignified pose in hose and heels while draped across the office beanbag chair reading through the slush pile.
I bought new clothes for the endeavor. I ordered them from J-Crew which, at the time, seemed an appropriately classy cover-up for my provincial upstate pedigree. It also meant I could avoid the department stores that brought back traumatizing memories of my mother pulling back the dressing room curtain to check my pants and skirts for roominess in the waist. I did buy one thing in person: a black cardigan with vertical grooves and funky brown buttons that caught the light just-so. The sweater fell past my hips and, when I fastened only the third button, made my boobs look bigger.
I lived in a closet-sized dorm room without air conditioning on the Upper West Side. At 5:30 every morning the traffic screeches and the breezeless humidity wafting though my open window woke me up, whereupon I would brew myself a cup of instant Folgers and watch a group of Falun Gong do their morning exercises in the courtyard below.
The building was populated by Columbia undergraduates doing summer internships for Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. Girls were few and far between and we regarded each other with suspicion; I began applying concealer and a thin snake of eyeliner before walking down to the communal bathroom to brush my teeth. The interns left the building one by one every morning in their freshly pressed shirts and incandescent ties. They all looked the same to me except for DaeKwon, who was black and sported a fade so retro it looked hip.
The first Saturday I’d encountered Justin in the kitchen wearing Nike athletic shorts, Adidas sandals and no shirt. He was making himself a protein shake in a miniature blender. His pecs were at my eye level, but I forced myself to look down. “Cat got your tongue?” He asked.
After that I stayed in my room reading Janet Frame and doing stomach crunches. Except that corn-rowed Latrell Sprewell was leading my New York Knicks to their first post-Ewing NBA finals and listening to the games on the radio just wasn’t cutting it. On the evening of elimination game five against the San Antonio Spurs, I began pulling outfits out of my closet. This one was too formal. That one made me look fat. I finally settled on the black cardigan, third button fastened over a tank top, even though it was a solid eighty-five degrees out.
The interns were crowded together on the lounge couch, but they looked strange out of their suits, except for Justin whose shoulders bulged from under his tank top like two perfectly risen Pilsbury rolls. DaeKwon was there too sitting stiff as a bookend on the edge of the couch.
“Dude,” Justin said, “I just can’t get behind the Knicks this year. I mean Latrell Sprewell is a straight-up thug. Choking his coach? I can’t believe they gave him another NBA contract.”
DaeKwon stiffened even more and began to bite his thumbnail.
“Now Allan Houston,” Justin said. “There’s a cat I could get behind.”
“Allan Houston’s overrated.” I said.
A smirk played across Justin’s face. “Hey,” he said, looking at the guy next to him. “A chick who thinks she knows sports.”
DaeKwon stood up and looked at me. “Come on,” he said. “I know somewhere else we can watch the game.”
He took me to a McDonalds in Harlem where we walked through the drive-thru and got super size orange drinks and a twenty piece box of chicken nuggets. “Extra sweet-and-sour please,” DaeKwon said to the woman behind the window.
“Sure hon,” she said. She dropped some extra packets into the bag. “Girl, ain’t you burning up in that sweater?”
Fifteen feet away a group of men stood with their faces pressed against a storefront window. They roared as Sprewell slashed through the lane and dunked over Jaren Jackson’s outstretched arms. “And the foul!” one of them yelled, pounding his palm against the glass.
The sweater survived another seven years until the night of my first real date with Mike. When we got back to my house, Mike sat on the end of the bed as I slipped off the sweater and draped it over the bedside lampshade to dim the light. I was afraid he’d see the pouch of wrinkled stretch marks around my belly button from when I was pregnant with Max-Yamil.
Mike ran his hands up and down my bare arms. He kissed my collar bone and curled his fingers around the bottom edge of my tank top. “You look like a countess,” he said. Behind us, a corner of the sweater that had fallen against the light bulb began to smolder and smoke.