Tonight I have helped Astrid unfold a chain of paper lanterns, propping them open on wire spindles and stringing them around the periphery of her apartment. We have put the cut heads of flowers—peonies, dahlias, chrysanthemums—to float in clear bowls of water, and I watch now as Astrid, glass of wine in hand, absentmindedly trails her fingers through one such basin, setting the petals in it spinning in tight, elliptical currents.
In the belly of each lantern, held in place by the wire spindle, sits a flickering tea candle, a real one, throwing golden discs of light and shadow onto the walls. We’d gone back and forth about whether to use real candles instead of LED ones, but of course Astrid had won, throwing back her flaxen head in triumph. “It’ll be fine, I promise,” she insisted, clutching my hands in hers, bringing my fingertips up to her lips to kiss them, then—coyly—sliding my fingers into her mouth, swirling her tongue around the pad of my thumb. Anyway, it’s her party, not mine: she wanted to start off our last year of college with a grand get-together.
The great creaking windows of her apartment, their frames caked in years of layers of white paint, are pushed up to admit a sweet September breeze. If I let my attention slide a little, slipping into the background of my own life like I’ve done a bump of ketamine, I can hear the murmur of people on the sidewalk and the rumbling of traffic three stories below, and if I come forward again I emerge into the hopelessly inane chatter of the party: the record spinning on the turntable, the theatrical re--tellings of summers abroad, of money made and hookups had and drugs eaten in the m...
For now all I can manage to feel is incredibly bored. I’m tired of small talk, of posturing, of pretending to be someone I’m not. Hoping to be an exception to the rule. A question buzzes insistently in my head, like a bee knocking against the side of a glass jar.
Is this all there is?
“Hey, baby,” Astrid says, on a circuit of the party, catching my gaze, ever the hostess. In the candlelight her blue eyes seem a sumptuous amber. “You okay?”
I resurface for her. Golden girl, my golden girl. Isn’t all this why I came here?
“Hey,” I say. “Yeah.” I give Astrid a big smile. She clinks her glass of wine against mine.
I notice her during a lull in conversation as the door swings open and she slips in late, a pretty Asian girl I don’t recognize. Her petite figure is framed by the doorway, and her shiny, short hair swings as she hangs up her denim jacket and unwraps a bottle of wine to set on the communal table.
No, I realize with a jolt. I do recognize her. She looks just like me.
We’re both Asian, and we’re both women; that much is obvious and enough for me to take note. But we even have the same short, sleek haircut—blunt ends drifting just an inch above my shoulders, an inch above hers—and the same full mouth, which on her is painted deep crimson. Her nose seems a touch more snub than mine, her cheekbones more defined (is she prettier than me?) but our resemblance is startling. It hits me with the flatness of a slap or a struck note. She is wearing a silk sleeveless dress from which her olive-complexioned shoulders emerge, smooth and hard as wood. The dress is cut low in the front, and I glimpse the flat plane of her sternum, a pale triangle of untanned skin below her breasts. Her eyes are wetly alert, rimmed with dark liner.
I watch her move through the kitchen and pause before entering the party and I’m dizzied. Cold rush of nausea rising in my chest. I feel as though I’ve caught a glimpse of myself from another angle, like when you think there’s someone else in the room but it’s actually a mirror, or when you see out of the corner of your eye your own figure monitored on CCTV, blown up on a screen to prevent shoplifters from stealing.
When she looks past the crowd to where I’m standing, we make eye contact. It’s as though someone’s shot an arrow straight through me. In that moment I understand how strange it is to encounter one’s doppelgänger, how it’s said you ought to kill yours on sight. I’m jealous of her, sickeningly so—jealous of her presence and of the fact that she’s disturbed my place, making me newly aware of myself and of the precarity of the position I have in this room. I feel hot, alive, replaceable. My skin tingles from her proximity.
She holds my gaze and smiles at me, her painted mouth curving at the corners, and it’s as though she’s pulled away some curtain, some opaque veil I can’t put back in place. Now that I know she knows I’ve been watching, I feel exposed. I glance down and away, looking out the window, though I’m too late. She’s seen me.
One of the tenants downstairs is smoking. Thin gray plume rising into the air. All that’s visible is a disembodied arm, elbow propped on the sill, hand holding a cigarette, its cherry-red ember bobbing in the night. Breathing slowly to calm myself, I follow the ember’s shallow path through space, back and forth, until it is withdrawn and disappears from view.
Even after looking away from her I feel we’re connected. That an invisible line tethers us, that no matter where I am I will know her position in the room.
When I look up, this other Asian girl, whoever she is, who has already thrown me into such disarray, has entered the party. Fluidly, like a seabird slipping into water. She is hugging Astrid. She is pouring herself a drink.
Now Astrid is talking about her summer as an intern at Vanity Fair. All the attention in the room is on her, in thrall to her droll voice and her expressive gestures—there’s something magnetic about her; I can’t deny it. It’s what drew me in, after all. Her eyes are big and her face is thin, hard-boned and rich. Every part of her is aspirational and perfect, as though cut cleanly from the pages of a magazine.
“I’d get up at seven every morning to write out my pitches and then I’d shower and eat breakfast and straggle into the office by nine, and then I’d answer people’s emails and do social media all day long and just beg—beg!—someone to let me write something, anything, and they would say no, maybe tomorrow, and then I’d get everyone coffee, and somewhere along the line somebody would need, say, their Louboutins repaired, and of course I’d have to go drop them off in midtown or downtown or, oh god, Brooklyn. And it went on like this the entire summer, them working me like a dog, and at the very end of it all they let me put my byline on a photo slideshow of coveted properties in the Hamptons.”
“Media is dead,” someone says.
“Long live media!” says someone else.
“Well, I loved it just the same,” Astrid says. “Hopefully they’ll want me back.” She makes a show of crossing her fingers.
I know she’ll get the job next year. Someone like Astrid always gets what she wants. It never occurs to her that she might not—that not everyone gets what they want.
She’s forgotten, too, that I’d originally been the one to get the position at the magazine. I couldn’t take the offer because it turned out the internship was unpaid. There was no way I could’ve justified the expense of living in the city, so I’d had to backtrack and say no, suggesting Astrid for it instead. Just remembering the events brings a hot prickle of envy and shame to my cheeks, but I bite my tongue, letting her have her moment the way I always do.
“It’s pretty wild, what they get away with,” the Asian girl says, cutting in. I’ve been watching her with such focused attention that her voice has that tinny, false quality of voices you only hear long after you first see someone enter a room, after you’ve already begun to craft an idea of them in your head. She sounds unexpectedly sweet, with a stretched-out, valley girl drawl. Wiiiild.
“Like, how do magazines think it’s doable?” she continues. “You can’t pay someone nothing while they work sixty-hour weeks and still expect them to make rent.”
“It’s the struggle,” Astrid says sympathetically. “But everyone’s supposed to be broke when they’re young. It’s practically a rite of passage.”
“There’s this expectation that people throw everything else in their lives away for the chance at breaking into an industry,” the Asian girl argues. “But that’s if you’re lucky enough to even get an opportunity. So many people don’t.”
“Shouldn’t you be willing to make those sacrifices, though?” Astrid asks. “There’s something beautiful about suffering for your art.”
“The scale of the sacrifice is bigger for some. Even if you manage to get an internship, you still have to relocate, and who can afford an apartment in the city without pay?”
“I couldn’t! I lived with my parents all summer,” Astrid says. I’m certain she’s forgotten. She wouldn’t be so insensitive if she remembered.
“Not everyone gets to have that,” the Asian girl says. “People who aren’t from New York, like me.” Or me. “I could never manage to do anything unpaid here.”
Everyone knows Astrid’s family has a beautiful townhouse on the Upper East Side—I remember the first time I went there with her, how easily she moved through its splendor, as though all of it was rightfully hers. Unquestioning. Almost everyone in this party is from the city; half of them attended the same high school. I’m one of the few who isn’t from New York, who didn’t come here from Manhattan or Brooklyn.
I wonder where this other Asian girl is from.
“That’s true,” Astrid says brightly. Her Cartier love bracelet lolls on her wrist as she reaches up to tuck a wisp of blonde hair back into her topknot. The gold sparkles in the light of the candles we set out together. “That’s true,” she repeats. “What did you get up to this summer, Dolores?”
Do-lo-res, I think to myself, impressing each syllable into my memory. Her name is Dolores.
Her cheeks are red from the heat of everyone’s attention upon her.
“I was at home, too,” she says crisply. “Working at the Getty. As a cataloging assistant on a special exhibit.”
Los Angeles, then. Every new piece of information about Dolores feels precious. I catalog everything she says. I want to understand her, I realize. I want to understand how she became the way she is now.
“I love the Getty,” Astrid says, leaping upon the chance to defuse the situation, and for a moment I wish I didn’t like her as much as I do.
“I adored the Richard Avedon exhibit there a few years ago,” someone offers. “And the campus is so beautiful. But it’s so hard to get to.”
“That’s because none of you New Yorkers drive!”
“I never thought I’d need to.”
“Really, you don’t. I Uber everywhere.”
“Personally, I’m waiting for the widespread adoption of the self-driving car.”
I pour myself another glass of wine, red this time. The record is still spinning, silently; that’s why the room feels so weird. I slip through the crowd to change the vinyl, putting on Hall and Oates. At the sound of the first riff Astrid glances over at me and shoots me a grateful smile. I want to talk to Dolores, but when I scan the room for her she’s gone, her denim jacket hanging stiffly from the coatrack like an empty chrysalis.
Making my way through the party on a hunch, I knock on the bathroom door. When it opens a sliver, a cool shaft of light falling cleanly to the floor, I’m not surprised to see it’s Dolores crouching inside, perched on the rim of the bathtub. Her feet are bare, toes curled against the small hexagonal tiles, nails painted poppy-red.
“Oh, good, it’s you,” she says. Those are the first words we’ve exchanged all night. I’m surprised by her warmth and her forthrightness—I’m not sure what I expected. Cruelty? A reiteration of the social order? Up close Dolores seems less intimidating, even approachable. I can see a pimple forming beneath her lower lip; smudges of stray eyeliner in the crease of her lids. She opens the door wider to let me in, looking around furtively. “Do you actually need to pee? I’m just hiding in here for a little. I like Astrid but these parties can be so awful.”
“I like her too, and I feel the same way,” I say.
Dolores gives me a sidelong glance. “Aren’t you dating?”
“Sort of,” I say.
“Sort of,” she echoes.
Dolores has brought a glass of wine inside with her. It is very full and very red. Her phone is resting on the creamy white lip of the sink—the screen on, crowded with black lines of text.
“Tell me about it,” Dolores says, but I don’t feel like explaining.
“What are you reading?” I ask her instead. I step into the bathroom and close the door behind me. After a moment’s hesitation, I lock it.
“Jacques Lacan,” Dolores says. “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I,” she recites, rolling her eyes. “I know how that sounds. But I’ve got a paper due and I wanted to catch up.” She passes the phone to me. She barely has to extend her arm in the tight space. I’m aware, as I take it in my hand, how very small Astrid’s bathroom is. How the last time she and I had sex in it we were pressed up against each other, the shower running, her back against the tile while I slid my fingers inside her, curling up into her, my thumb on her clit and my mouth on her neck, the mirror fogging doubly fast from the heat of the water and the heat of our lust. She’s so fucking pretty, especially when she comes all over my hand.
I can smell Dolores’s hair. It’s something salty and floral, like lavender.
“I’ve never read Lacan,” I confess, skimming through the text. Nothing stands out to me.
“Really?” Dolores asks, but I don’t detect any judgment in her tone. It’s small, but it feels like a relief—that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not around her.
“His mirror stuff, it’s really interesting,” she says. “He theorized that the formation of an individual’s identity—the I stage, he calls it—coincides with the mirror stage of development. The self forms in response to witnessing a reflection of itself. You become an I when you’re imaged.”
Instinctively, I look to the mirror, where we’re both framed in the simple rectangle. I make eye contact with myself, then with Dolores, then look away.
“No, don’t look away,” she says gently. “Stay.” Her voice low and generous. I feel caught between her and my reflection, as captive as if she’d held me in place with her hand. I don’t know where to rest my gaze. I set her phone on the lip of the sink. “According to Lacan, when the child sees his own reflection in a mirror, he finally understands that his collection of turbulent gestures coalesce into a unified self.” She looks over her shoulder, meeting my eyes in the mirror. “Try it,” she says.
“What does that mean, turbulent gestures?” I ask.
Her brow furrows slightly, then clears. Like a ripple spreading through a pool of water. “Like . . . when you’re moving through your life, you see yourself in parts, right? It’s impossible to capture a whole. Your limbs moving in all directions, the wind blowing your hair in your face . . . But a mirror, it draws a line around all those things. It gives you a form to hold on to, a thing to call your own.”
I consider this, thinking of closed loops and reflections. For some reason it reminds me of contour drawings, of a line inscribing a scrawl of squiggles. Experimentally, I move closer to the mirror, leaning in toward my own reflection. I tilt my head—first one way, then the other, waiting to see if anything changes within my conception of my self, if anything will rupture and then be made whole again.
“You should read it,” Dolores says. “There are some really good lines.” She picks up her phone again from where I’ve left it—again, that disarming whiff of her scent as she moves past me. Lavender and salt. Desire coats my throat. “It is this moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into being mediated by the other’s desire,” she reads aloud from her phone.
“What moment?” I ask.
“Stand up,” she says. “I’ll show you.”
I’m finding it hard to form words. The air between us seems to have grown thick with a dense, pulsing energy.
She stands up. We’re the same height. I knew this.
Dolores looks into the mirror and raises her hand. I raise my hand, too. She draws an arc in the air and, simultaneously, I draw an arc, too. My eyes are darting between my reflection and hers. Then, an unreadable expression on her face, she turns to me, taking my hands in hers. They’re cold. In tandem, we lift our hands up, first her left, then her right, our fingertips trembling, barely touching, eyes locked on each other, each mirrored gesture of ours itself reflected in the mirror. I can’t imagine not following her lead. It’s as though we are choreographed in stereo, sinking into the same frequency, which seems to live somewhere deep in our bones.
“This moment,” she says.
The wineglass Dolores has left next to the sink is shimmering, its surface thrumming almost imperceptibly, as though there is an earthquake happening, or a stampede outside.
“Now that you know how you look, how can you possibly stop looking?” she asks me, her voice soft.
I want nothing more than to kiss her. Her lips are mere inches from mine. I know it’s wrong. Suddenly there’s a sharp knock at the door. We spring apart, though nothing has passed between us—nothing tangible. I unlock the door and it’s Astrid, her face flushed. She’s got a leather bag looped over her shoulder: I spy the corner of a laptop, a sheaf of papers. There’s a weird smell in the air.
“Baby,” she says, grabbing my hand, pulling me out of the bathroom, “you were right, you were right, we gotta go. The apartment’s on fire.”
Flecks of ash drift through the night air. It’s chilly out and Astrid is next to me, wrapped in a blanket, looking up at her apartment, her fingers tightly entwined with mine. From the outside, you can’t see much of anything, and the firefighters have assured her that the damage is minimal. The party has moved to the sidewalk on the corner of Chapel and Howe and the mood is jovial. Someone passes Astrid a cigarette and asks if I want one too.
“Sure,” I say, glancing over, then do a double take. It’s Dolores.
“Hey,” she says to me. Now that we’re all safely out of harm’s way, there’s a mischievous glimmer about her. “Need a light?”
“Hey,” I say to her. “Yes, actually.”
She lights my cigarette for me, then reaches over to touch Astrid on the shoulder. “I’m so glad everything’s okay,” she tells her.
“Me too,” Astrid says, laughing a little. She takes a drag off her cigarette and then exhales straight up, blue smoke ghosting into the air. Her profile is lovely under the yellow glow of the streetlights, the golden hairs at her temple curling with sweat.
I feel something prod my elbow. It’s Dolores, her phone lit up with the field for adding a new number. I type mine in and silently pass it back to her.
In my bed that night Astrid takes down her hair, shaking it out—it smells like smoke, everything about her smells like smoke, her sweater and her skin and her cunt, and as though watching myself from a great distance I see myself there next to her, kissing her deeply, tasting the white wine souring on her tongue, feeling her teeth tug at my bottom lip. Once, when we first met, she bit hard enough to draw blood. I run my hands across her milky skin, cupping her small breasts, pinching her rosy nipples, finding with one hand the soft pearl of her clitoris, massaging gently. I close my eyes and feel her mouth against mine, her softness, how she yields to my touch. It still astonishes me that she wanted to be mine, that of all the people she could have possibly had, she chose me.
Briefly, I remember my envy tonight, along with my shame. How it stung to realize she’d forgotten entirely about my lost opportunity this past summer; how in giving her speech about pursuing one’s art she’d forgotten I couldn’t pursue mine. It rises in me like bile, the hurt, and I force it to the back of my mind, opening my eyes to look at her, at her perfect white skin and the way she writhes beneath me.
“Baby, I’m already so wet for you,” she murmurs, her hips bucking at my hand. “Please,” she says.
I love it when she begs me because Astrid never begs for anything.
“Say it again,” I tell her, stroking in circles around her clit. Teasing her. Making her work for it.
“Please, I need you, please.”
I slide two fingers inside her, rougher than usual tonight, my thumb firmly on her clit, curling my hand up searching for the spot that makes her whine “Yes yes yes” into my mouth, thrusting my fingers inside her over and over in the same slick rhythm “Yes yes yes please baby yes” until she’s clenching around me and dripping down her leg. She comes to life then, yanking down her sodden panties and kicking them off, pulling my shirt over my head—I never wear a bra; she loves the easy access—-and tugging my leggings down to my knees. Because we’re both girls we know it’s okay to be rough, that we can take it; she drops to her knees and buries her face in my pussy, her closed eyes and cloud of golden hair making her look angelic as her tongue laps against my clit, her slim fingers driving into me.
“Don’t stop,” I command, “don’t, oh, fuck, baby.”
When I come I’m trying to think of her, I’m trying to think of her and how lovely she is, but there’s something missing, some gap that my brain can’t quite cross, and I let my mind go blank as the brightness builds and then I’m quaking, clenching around her fingers, her tongue still flicking over my clit, my hands tangled in her hair.
After, Astrid wipes her mouth on her hand—smiling up at me with a look that makes my insides go hot and liquid again—and we curl into each other. When I kiss her I can taste myself on her, and when she turns her back to me, silently asking to be held, I press my nose against the nape of her neck, smelling only the acrid smell of smoke.