Joey Rubin paused and looked up from her drafting table. As she wandered to the windows at the back of her apartment, Tink raised her head from her basket, then flopped back down and closed her eyes. Joey couldn’t see the moon from the rear windows, but its dappled blue-grey light shone on all the neighbouring buildings, casting deep, dramatic shadows.
It was three am and she suddenly felt bone-tired. She also realised that any more work on tomorrow’s presentation was likely to be counter-productive. Her professor in architecture school had stressed the importance of recognising this moment, when more work on a project, more thought, more ideas might actually damage a concept that was already fully realised. She crossed the space and looked at her illustration – a large watercolour of Stanway House, the historic English building that her firm was developing – and then, reluctantly, turned out the light.
Street sounds had woken her, a sure sign that she’d been sleeping very lightly. She glanced at the clock on her bedside table – not yet six – then turned her pillow over, and snuggled back down.
Joey had lived on the top floor of her building on Lexington Avenue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for thirty-three of her thirty-seven years, and only rarely did street sounds other than passing sirens reach her ears. From July to August, when the apartment heated up like a furnace, she’d have the air conditioners in the windows going full blast. But on warm spring evenings, or when the cool autumn winds blew new life into a tired and wilting city, she loved to throw open her windows and climb out onto the fire escape that zigzagged up the front of her building.
She had always dreamed of doing this, growing up in the apartment with her parents. She had pleaded to be allowed to sleep out there with her best friend Sarah, who lived on the third floor. She imagined them dragging pillows and blankets out of the Rubins’ front room window and settling in under the invisible stars. They would not fall off! They could put a chair across the opening at the top of the stairs so they wouldn’t roll down in their sleep. But Joey’s parents wouldn’t hear of it, no matter how old she and Sarah got, and no matter how hard they begged.
Fifteen years ago, when Joey’s father had left for Florida with his new wife, Joey had crawled out onto the fire escape with a bottle of champagne left over from the wedding. She wasn’t quite sure what she was celebrating. Her father had given her the deeds and the extra sets of keys as though it were no big deal. That’s when she knew that he and Amy wouldn’t be coming back, and if they ever did, they wouldn’t be coming here. For the first few days, she had felt she was rattling around in the apartment. Much of its furniture was already on its way to Myrtle Beach, and most of what was left she couldn’t wait to replace. But at least the place was officially hers.
Joey could usually talk herself out of pre-meeting nerves, especially when the real responsibility for a presentation’s success or failure rested with someone else, as it did today. But, as she fixed her coffee and breakfast, she could feel anxiety beginning to build.
Anxiety, and something else too . . . Truth be told, Joey was envious that Dave Wilson, her boss, and not she herself, would be going to England to live in the house and supervise its conversion. Stanway was a place dear to her heart; the house where her favourite author, J.M. Barrie, had spent his holidays – and where he had reputedly written Peter Pan. Joey had invested a lot of herself into this project, months of design and renderings, for which – as she knew all too well – Dave was ultimately likely to get the credit.
Joey had been with the Apex Group for seven years now, and her overall professional strategy – just be better than everyone else, and eventually people will notice – was starting to seem flawed. Anyone who knew her work knew that she could talk materials, calculate load-bearing capacities and draw irreproachable specs with the best of them. Her colleagues competed to have her on their teams, because it was widely appreciated – if never openly acknowledged – that Joey worked harder, later and longer than anyone else. And yet, rather than being singled out for promotions and raises, she found herself the perpetual bridesmaid, always in demand to support the beaming brides. Or in the case of her firm, the grinning grooms.
To make matters worse, Alex Wilder was going to be sitting in on today’s meeting. She’d run into him just as she was leaving the office on Friday night, and over the weekend she’d spent more time than she cared to think about pressing on the bruise of this annoying development. What was he coming for? He had nothing to do with the Stanway restoration. Didn’t he have enough to do, with that neighbourhood association raising issues about the development of the Canal Street settlement? Why was he poking his nose into International, when they had sixteen projects in various stages of completion in New York City alone, on seven of which he was the principal architect?
Six months ago, Alex wouldn’t have come near the conference room when Joey was giving a presentation, for fear of fanning the flames of the rumours that were beginning to circulate. After a year of managing to keep their relationship secret, they’d been seen by one of the secretaries, a notorious busybody, having dinner together in a restaurant in the Meatpacking District. For a month before he broke things off, abruptly and with the lamest of excuses, Joey could see curiosity and suspicion in the eyes of her colleagues. At least she didn’t have to deal with that any more.
Joey glanced over at Tink, who was just finishing up her own breakfast, and wondered for the thousandth time which breeds of dog had contributed the DNA that defined her pet: Tink’s sweet, impatient temper; her love of digging; the ears that flopped over at the halfway point; the legs that seemed too short for her torso; the tail that curled up grandly like an acanthus leaf.
Tink looked up and gave a little yip.
“In a minute.”
Joey poured her coffee into a travel mug, returned to her bedroom and pulled on yoga pants and a jacket. In the hall, she slipped Tink’s leash off the hook beside the door.
It was freezing when she stepped outside, much colder than it had been for the past few days. Tink grandly led the way, pulling Joey toward the corner of Fifth Avenue, where vans were idling near the entrance of Neue Galerie. Joey had gone there three times to see the exhibition on turn-of-the-century Viennese art and style, lingering before the portraits by Klimt and Kokoschka, but ending up every time on the third floor, to worship at the altar of one of her idols, the Austrian architect Otto Wagner. Studying the photographs of his buildings, she’d found herself hoping that at least once in her life she would get the chance to design something as structurally austere and yet visually playful as Wagner’s Majolica Haus.
Tink resisted Joey’s turning onto East 84th. She wanted to go to Central Park and she put every ounce of her twenty-pound frame into the effort to pull her mistress in that direction. But Joey didn’t have time for a leisurely ramble this morning.
As they passed the gracious brownstones that lined the block on both sides, Joey thought of the people she knew who lived or had lived within their walls: Mrs. Phelps, her mother’s friend, who smelled of cigarettes and expensive perfume and never missed a weekly visit when her mother was sick. She always brought pastry or flowers and hugged Joey too tight when she left.
A little further along the block was the apartment where for three long years Joey had taken piano lessons from a Hungarian émigré named Frída Szabó – Madame Szabó, as she insisted on being called, who had reminded her each and every week that she had once performed a Mozart piano concerto with the world-famous conductor, János Sándor. The woman spent most of each half hour scolding Joey for not practising more, and when this had no discernible effect, finally told Joey’s parents that they were simply wasting their money. Joey couldn’t have been happier.
Back at home an hour later, she made her final inspection in the full-length mirror. She looked . . . fine. No, she looked – good! A little tired, maybe, and pale. But the suit fitted her perfectly, and the Fendi boots always gave her a confidence boost. She took them off for now and folded them into her shoulder bag, to be slipped back on when she’d cleared the muck and puddles of the cross-town trek.
Tink gave her a pitiful look, as she always did when her mistress was about to leave her alone, but Joey couldn’t think about that right now. She had exactly one hour before she would be standing with Dave in the conference room.