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A Burning Desire

Alix Strauss

They stood outside in a muddled mass, watching. Waiting.

The men were off to the side, securing hotel rooms, calling insurance companies, talking claims and estimating damages. The women, a bit more hysterical, dialed-up relatives and friends, relaying the horror over and over. They talked to the people on the phone and to the neighbor standing next to them, sustaining several conversations at once. And the children. They clung to their mother's legs, shivering in the cold November air, begging to be hoisted into arms, or were comforted by their nannies. Betsy Gainer stood there, too, chilled and coatless, opened mouthed, slightly horrified, slightly titillated.

It was like watching a movie on the world's largest flat screen. Good looking, rugged men dressed in bumble-bee like fireproof suits scurried around, securing the area, axes in one hand, walk-talkies in the other as red and yellow lights swirled, bouncing off of windows and resurfacing onto rubberneckers' faces. As policemen ran into the building, which was consumed by thick, gray clouds of smoke billowing from the lobby and pouring out into the street, neighbors ran out like rats, scampering off in different directions. Some went to get their cars, others fled to near-by friends' homes. A few took their kids to restaurants or a movie or Borders. Others, like Betsy, lingered in the dreary, early afternoon and observed.

An electrical fire had spread underneath the building, damaging the circuit breakers, eating away at the cement like a cancer, causing several manholes to explode from the pressure. Any appliance on at the time was totaled. TVs and stereos smoldered, computers sizzled from the inside, and bulbs grew Steven King bright before cracking and bursting. Though the interiors of most apartments were still intact, the building had to be evacuated, the avenue sealed off.

An hour later five neighbors from 112 East 60th street sat at table with a window view of their building and drank until it became blurry. Betsy was sitting next to Joy, whose husband, Chuck, and three-year-old son, were staked-out at her mother's apartment two blocks away with another couple and their twin daughters. On her other side was Adian, an entertainment lawyer who lived directly below her in 7E. He was lean and fit with thick, dirty-blond hair and chiseled good looks. A rugged Ken doll. Manhattan Ken, she had dubbed him. She often caught him coming home from work, briefcase in tow, cell phone attached to his ear. On the weekends, she looked forward to him rolling past her on his blades, his muscular body decked out in black spandex shorts or shiny runner's outfit, headphones hung around his neck, an I-Pod hooked onto his waist. She'd get all dolled up, as if she were going to a swanky restaurant, and strategize her excuse for being downstairs; no heat, clogged sink, stuck window. As far as she could tell, Adian had three standard expressions. The left-eye-wink, the nod and smile, and the half-wave-walk-by. On rare occasions he'd stop and chat, ask what she'd been up to, how her day was, if she'd seen any good movies. Across from her was Netta, an artsy elderly woman whose husband, an old army Colonel, had died last year, and Randel, a gay gynecologist, who lived with his lover, Jamie, on the 4th floor.

"What a waste," her doorman once said to her when Randel entered the building and Betsy was picking up a package. "Here's a man with the best job in town and he can't appreciate a woman's pussy."

They ordered another round and toasted the building, then each other. She loved being out with them as they bonded, blended together over this catastrophe.

"I was on the john when a fireman knocked at my door," Netta admitted sheepishly, her glass still raised in the air. "I barely had time to flush." They laughed as a group, their voices melding to create a pleasurable, harmonious sound. Betsy turned from Netta to look at Adian, to see if he, too, was appreciating the humor. His face was clean and freshly shaven, his eyes seemed extra bright and green against his olive skin. As if someone was taking their photo, she held her face near to his, trying desperately to capture the moment: Adain's laugh, Netta's voice, Joy's strong perfume. To onlookers they must have appeared like this was a weekly gathering.

It was after her third or fourth glass of wine that Adian's fingers slid like mini snakes over to her thigh. The warmth of his palm seeped through her skirt and she dropped her hand from the tabletop and searched for his until she found it. She smiled to herself, then looked up at him as he stroked her thumb.

"Fire good," he whispered to her, imitating Frankenstein.

Something moved inside of her, and she suddenly thought herself very lucky.

They migrated back to the building, met up with other tenants and were informed they'd have ten minutes to collect belongings if they wished. After being advised they'd be entering at their own risk, each was given a mask and flashlight, and asked to sign a waiver. A fireman would escort them up the stairs and the group would reconvene across the street afterwards. Randel pulled out his cell and phoned Jamie, as if this was his last call before execution.

They drunkenly made their way up the stairs, laughing nervously at the situation, at the poor timing for a fire to happen. With Thanksgiving two days away, half of Manhattan was gearing down while the other half was moving at high speed. Fireman Jack ordered them to hug the right side of the stairwell while he patted the walls, feeling for heat. Betsy imagined them chanting, calling off in numbers, like in an army troop to make sure they were still one unit. "One, two, three, four, I hate this building more and more." From above, they heard feet scuff against steps, voices become louder, bags thump, fou- legged creatures make light scratching sounds. They passed neighbors who were making their way down; older tenants, pregnant women with young children, men carrying suitcases, strollers banging behind them. They looked gaunt, ghostly in the barely-lit stairwell. People were eerily quiet as if they were expecting complicated directions or to see a burst of red flames run through the cables wires. A few firemen made momentary appearances, dodging in and out of the doorframes, like adults playing peek-a-boo.

By the fourth floor Betsy was sweaty and dizzy, from the liquor and the smoke, the plastic facemask, maybe from Adian's touch. She could feel him from behind, his hand placed at the small of her back helping to steady her.

When they got to Betsy's floor, they waited for her to enter her apartment and say "I'm okay" before moving on. Once inside, she absentmindedly reached for the light, momentarily forgetting, and dropped the facemask on the dinning room table. She scanned the apartment with the flashlight like a cat burglar. Broken bits of bulb sprinkled her floor, like confetti. The TV seemed intact, as did her computer.

Packing came second nature to her, like making coffee in the morning or brushing her teeth before bed, as she recalled with clarity the invisible list she'd created for situations such as these during late-night insomniatic fits. In the dark of her closet she felt for her good suits and gowns, knowing them like children, each with a different texture and fabric. The rhinestones, the sequins, the beaded crystals all sent out shocks of memories; her at the Grammys, the Oscars, the VH1 Awards.

Like a game of celebrity musical chairs, it was her job was to occupy an empty seat while a star was temporarily MIA. When they returned, either from the restroom or bar, or from backstage with a statue in tow, they reclaimed their seat while she looked for another opening. Everyone thought Betsy led the glamorous life, holding spots for others. Sitting next to the likes of Julia or Tom, or being caught by a panning camera was all some of her colleagues -- bored women whose husbands worked, college kids and retired ladies, men who wanted to get laid -- needed. For her, it was being part of a momentous occasion. Participating in something epic.

"Everyone wants a cushy seat to the kingdom, but only a handful of people know how to open the door," the casting director, who was responsible for papering the house, told her. "I got 1200 applications for the MTV Awards, but could only use 100 people."

Betsy's Waspy, generic looks earned her entrance. Allowed her to blend in. She could be anyone's wife or girlfriend. Pretty to look at, easy to forget.

There were exciting moments. She'd sat next to Cher once at the Grammys, shared an armrest with Michael Douglas, even rubbed shoulders with Sigourny Weaver, but she was whisked away before Betsy could congratulate her or feel the heaviness of the trophy everyone was always commenting on. She participated silently at game shows, asked questions to guests on morning talk shows and laughed on command at sitcoms. These were great stories to tell at parties or on dates, sitting on wooden stools drinking white wine. But at the end of the night, getting on a bus or sitting alone in the back seat of a cab dressed in other people's gowns she'd purchased at consignment shops and on e-bay, with no one's hand to grasp, was devastatingly lonely. At home, though she could sit anywhere she wanted, she never found a comfortable spot, a place where her body could just relax.

She took three pairs of good evening-shoes and crammed them into the stuffed garment bag. In a large Le Sport Sac she packed two sweaters, underwear, jeans, and a toiletry kit. Extra cash, checks, her passport, jewelry, make-up, plug for her cell phone and a mini-binder of contact numbers for her jobs, she got shoved into a knapsack. She packed quickly and with care, and with the intention of not coming back. In the end she felt as though she was on the $10,000 Pyramid, competing with a C-list actor, someone from Melrose Place or Thirtysomething. " A passport. A birth certificate. Irreplaceable photographs." Buzz. "Things you grab during a fire."

She was in the middle of reaching for her palm pilot when the knock came at her door, which she'd left open as instructed.

"I thought you might need help." He stepped inside and shined his flashlight around her apartment, finally resting on her. Betsy squinted and brought her hand up to her eyes, shadowing them. At first she thought it was fireman Jack informing her time was up, but Adian's silhouette filled the frame of her entranceway instead.

"It's me." He flicked the light to just under his chin so that his angular face was instantly illuminated. His baseball hat caught the light and framed his face, making him appear slightly demonic. He, too, was maskless.

The smell of smoke wafted into the apartment as he walked over to her. She returned the gesture, and thought of the light beams from Star War movies. And popcorn. The smoke reminded her of severely burnt kernels.

"You okay?" He had only one large duffel bag and a bike helmet, which scraped the floor.

"Where's all your stuff?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I don't think this is as serious as everyone's making it. My apartment's fine. Besides, everything important is at my office."

She nodded, feeling silly for packing.

"So, you need some help?"


As he leaned forward she caught the scent of his cologne, followed by the smell of hair gel. She though he was reaching for her bag, but when he went for her lips instead she assumed he was drunker than he thought. His breath was toothpaste minty, but still had the lingering taste of scotch. She wished she had some mints in her pocket. He put a hand on her shoulder, his other cupped her chin and his tongue slipped into her mouth before she had time to steal a breath. "I can do this. I can do this. Stay in the moment," she thought, as if she was in a method acting class.

Adian's skin was incredibly soft, muscular and firm, just as she had imagined. She ran her hands under his sweater as he pressed up against her, pushing her to the floor. He was heavy on her, as if he was struggling. A wave of nausea returned. She shut her eyes willing herself onto a soft, warm beach, the scent of sea air replacing the smoke and her coarse, sharp carpet, which was scratching her back, arms and thighs. He kissed her hurriedly, hungrily. She considered searching through her travel bag for the emergency condom she always packed but never had an opportunity to use. Fearing it would take too long, she waved the idea away. The building could still explode, and the fear of getting pregnant or VD became, somehow, less important.

Before she knew it, his jeans were unbuttoned, her skirt bunched up, her underwear pulled down. She sucked in her stomach trying to match his firm body. When he was inside her, she winced for a second, let out a muffled cry as she talked herself into enjoying this. After all, this was risky and exhilarating. A naughty, raunchy story to share with others as she waited to fill a seat or stood on a movie line. "Death made me do it," she imagined herself proclaiming over sushi with girlfriends. They'd be shocked, a little mortified, but they'd have new respect for her. A badge of courage, a medal of sexual honor. "We will all go down together" she'd say, "and I did." She visualized her burnt skeletal system wrapped around Adain's. They would find her, a mess of melted skin stuck to another as scorched body, the bones indecipherable, as if they had been entwined on her Pottery Barn carpet. She pictured fireman Jack breaking down the door with the intention of pulling a rescue, only to find them on the floor. At first he would be alarmed, perhaps they had fallen, passed out from smoke inhalation, then he'd discover the truth. At least her friends would think she'd had one good fuck before she died. At least they could say she wasn't alone.

She felt feverish and itchy and cold as she followed Adian slowly down the dark stairs, forcing herself to concentrate on the weak ray from his flashlight. It was too quiet. All she could hear was their breathing and footsteps, and his helmet bouncing lightly off his knapsack.

When they arrived at the meeting place everyone was waiting for them. Her hair was a mess and she was wearing the scent of burnt clothing and sex, and just a hint of Adian's cologne. She wasn't even sure if she had buttoned her shirt correctly in the dark. People would assume it was the dangerous situation or the burst of adrenaline that was to blame for her discombobulated state. But when no one said a word, she felt a little disappointed.

After much deliberation, cell phone numbers were exchanged and promises made to keep each other informed with updates. Joy offered her mother's apartment, who was away visiting her sister in Florida, to those who had nowhere else to go. Randel was meeting Jamie at the Four Seasons, where they would be staying.

"Though it's ghastly expensive," he said, his hand waving in the air, "it's one of the only hotels that wasn't sold out. Besides, fires are depressing, we deserve a little reward for this."

Adian announced he, too, was checking himself into the same hotel. Betsy glanced at her feet. "Don't look at him. Do. Not. Look at him," waiting to see if he would ask her to join. But when Netta opened her mouth to say a friend was picking her up and the two would be starting their holiday weekend early, Betsy knew Adian wouldn't ask. The minute, the opportunity, was gone.

Joy had brought Simon's stroller and she and Betsy took turns pushing the piled high contraption up 60th street. Neither packed winter coats, so Betsy pulled out two of her sequined gowns and they wrapped them around their shoulders. They looked like well-dressed homeless people huddling together and watching their breath in the harsh winter air.

By the time they arrived at Joy's mother's apartment, the others had sent the nannies home and made themselves comfortable, commandeering the kitchen and den. Crayons were sprawled over the mini plastic table in the kitchen, the TV played a cartoon, a tape one of the adults had packed. Diaper bags, toys, pacifiers and books were scattered everywhere. Joy's mother an interior designer; her house was magazine-spread beautiful -- sleek and modern -- and smelled like fresh roses. Ornate molding on the floor accentuated the high ceilings in the entrance and hallway. Glossy chrome dominated the living room, offsetting the white couch, matching chairs and vanilla-cream plush carpet. A zebra throw covered most of the floor in the den, which was decorated in hunter style -- butter leather couches, warm, rich mahogany wall units, even an antique gun collection which she had won in her divorce settlement. The dining room had an elongated table, the kind that easily sat ten people and Betsy could almost hear the laughter coming from past dinner parties when Joy's parents were still married and pretended to be in love. She pictured other happily married couples laughing, heads falling back, hair spilling over faces, men slapping the table with the palms of their hands as they drank expensive wine and ate quail or escargot.

Her other neighbors, David and Catherine Sommer, were an attractive couple with good-looking twin girls. She was blond, he wasn't. Both had substantial jobs, though she worked from home part-time. The kids seemed well adjusted. They owned three apartments that had been constructed into one large home and ruled the 11th floor. An American dream all around. Chuck, Joy's squat and chubby husband, owned a hedge fund company and had the personality of flat seltzer.

Simon ran to his mother before she could park the stroller.

"Thanks for helping," Chuck said to Betsy after she'd gotten the full tour. He stood by the front door holding it open. Everyone stared at her until Joy announced she'd be joining them for dinner. Chuck pulled his wife aside, and Betsy could see his mouth move, his hand griping Joy's upper arm, see her wiggle free and walk away. Maybe Betsy should leave, take her belongings and just go. She glanced at the Sommers who smiled uneasily.

They convened in the kitchen, the children at work coloring, cheerios on a paper plate, sippy cups in a rainbow of pale colors. The adults mulled over a Szechuan Palace menu, a second bottle of champagne already opened and nearly gone. She watched the two couples scamper around the kitchen, each with a list of tasks to accomplish, doing the shorthand speaking husbands and wives perform.

It was an odd feeling standing in someone's mother's kitchen surrounded by individuals who would normally have nothing to do with her. It wasn't a snow day, though it felt like one. Natural disaster day Betsy wanted to call it, almost suggested it to the gang.

When she was 9, a tornado threatened Manhattan, and as a result, everyone was on high alert. She remembered her mother making large X's from shiny brown packing tape on the windows, just as the TV news people had instructed. It was very exciting and Betsy had worn her father's hard hat and clear plastic glasses from his construction days. She held the tape and cut it into pieces for her mother while her father gathered essential items: water, first aid kit, candles, batteries, radio. Schools were closed and parents, who were friends solely because they all had kids, like the Sommers and Wexlers, made play-dates, coordinated pizza parties in the building for those fearful of venturing out.

But these people here tonight weren't friends. And they weren't family. Still, she knew intimate details about them; how they lived, where they shopped, what they ate, who they got food deliveries from. She knew their routine, what type of music they favored. She'd seen them dressed-up, waiting for the elevator, off to attend some glamorous event. Saw the after-effects the next day, hungover, unshowered, still smelling of sleep as they picked up their newspaper from outside their front door. She'd borrowed ice, sugar, milk, lent them pots, glasses, chairs. She knew their friends, heard arguments with spouses, and saw them lose control with their kids. For many, she'd been a witness when the women first began to show, and when those children celebrated their first birthdays. Sh'de received respectful hellos, cordial courtesies from people who had earned a peculiar kind of status. They'd bonded over the simple fact that they lived several feet away, shared a wall or ceiling.

"How about Orange beef?" Chuck suggested relinquishing the menu to his quests.

"Oh, Catherine doesn't eat meat, remember?" David answered for his wife.

"Right," he said, a hand placed on Joy's shoulder.

"We like garlic chicken. Anyone else?" Catherine chirped, leaning over her husband to see her options better. "And shrimp. We're big shrimp people."

"Us too." Joy, who had finished the champagne Chuck poured her, sat down next to David, who refilled her glass without having to be asked.

"To new friends," Joy sang.

"To new friends," they all repeated.

Betsy wanted to make a toast also, to their gracious hosts and to herself for being able to get through the evening. "To the husband I haven't met, the children I haven't delivered, and all the moments in between." Perhaps she should quit her job and work for Hallmark, start a division called Bitter Single Women. She pictured an attractive woman with lots of frogs at her feet on the front of a card with the words: "If you haven't found him yet…." Inside would reveal another, very attractive woman. Underneath would read: "Go gay. All your other friends have."

"Betsy, any requests?" Catherine asked.

Without Adian at the house, Betsy felt unexplainably empty. If she were dating someone he'd have known what to choose. If she were closer to these people they'd be able to order for her. She hated this, the simple arrangement of things, the common understanding of jobs. The team of two. It was a Noah's Ark hierarchy, man and woman. Even if she and Adian weren't a couple, she could have pretended they were in this situation together. He would have paid for her portion of Chinese food. The men would have reached for their wallets simultaneously and pulled out crisp green bills. Even without kids, they could have been a team. She wondered if he'd call to check in, wanted, somehow needed, to hear his voice. She flashed to them on the floor, tried to remember how she felt. Wished she was there now.

She had spent a lifetime looking for her husband, a partner to walk up the wooden plank into the foreboding and welcoming arc. This was why people married, she thought, so they'd have company, a partner in crime to go through trauma with. Good times were just a bonus.

At thirty-eight she was tempted to marry just so she could be included in group activities that couples did together: weekend trips to Connecticut and Hamptons, vacations to Florence or Spain. She wanted dinners with friends who ate as couples, dined as a group of married professionals. She contemplated adopting a child so she could fit in with the rest of the world, go to classes, chat with other mommies in Central Park, carry bite-size food in ziplock bags, share toys and books. But it was just her. It was always just her. She needed a program or group therapy meeting for normal people who wanted to connect with others. But those didn't exist. And if they did, it was called mixers or events for single professionals with a cut-off age that Betsy always seemed to miss. She'd entered the dot.com dating movement with the rest of the world, read the personals in the back of New York Magazine, even joined the 92nd Street Y in the hopes of finding someone through educational evenings. All that came from her hard efforts was bad banter from men who weren't really ready to meet women, didn't share her goals or interests, or were divorced with kids and an ex wife or two.

The line of distinction ended with her single, childless state. Her independence. "The problem is, Betsy, you're too self sufficient," a friend had told her once. "Appear too put-together and no one thinks you need help."

Dinner was surprisingly enjoyable, good conversation, tasty food, dishes Betsy wouldn't ordinarily have ordered: bean curd soup, Tai-chein chicken, rainbow pork and prawns in garlic sauce. The kids ran around the table, grabbing fortune cookies and breaking them open, thrusting the tiny papers at the adults to read. Everyone made up sayings so the kids would understand them. When Simon gave his to Betsy, she switched A change in scenery will open more than just your heart to, Cookie Monster says you love cookies. Simon jumped up and down. "I do. I do." And everyone laughed. Betsy tucked the paper into her skirt pocket, she wanted to hold on to something. And this, if anything, besides her sex-soiled underwear, was at least a souvenir of the evening.

As she gathered up the empty white cartons and metal tins, she caught David reach for his wife's pinkie, his thumb and index finger curling around it. They were pretty people who looked enough like each other to be sister and brother, yet were distinct enough to look couply. Joy's cherub face, long brown hair and big eyes gave her a soft, den-mother appearance. The type to keep everything Simon had ever made in a scrapbook with dates and exposition to each creative endeavor. Chuck looked like he'd gotten stuck in something he wished he hadn't. As if he'd missed his escape clause. Now he had a wife, a child, and another on the way, Betsy bet, though Joy hadn't said anything.

When she returned to the dining room, two decks of cards and a bag of pistachios were waiting. What was she doing here? Taking refuge in a well decorated, high-end fallout shelter off of 5th avenue with people who were not only a few years younger than she, but whose lives were in better order. She wanted the life she was sure she was supposed to have. She refused to be a Lichenstein painting, bubble letters above her head that read, "I forgot to have kids." Or worse, she could become one of those people who took in stray cats and gave scarves she knitted as birthday and Christmas gifts. But before Betsy knew it, she was raising David a fist full of nuts while fanning out her full-house.

Catherine leaned forward to place a plate in the dishwasher, her diamond earrings reflecting off the fluorescent light, momentarily blinding Betsy. She caught her staring at them.

"A present from David," Catherine shared, her hand clasping each ear to make sure they were both still in the appointed spots. "An anniversary gift. He thinks I don't know that his secretary bought them, but to be honest, she's got better taste then he does. Sometimes I phone her and drop hints on what I want around holidays."

Catherine smelled of cigarettes and Betsy had wished she'd bummed one and the two could have sat smoking by an open window in the living room, or stood like rebellious coworkers on the street shivering.

"So, where are you going to stay?" she asked Betsy as they scraped plates, removing remnants of pancake and peking sauce. Everyone had asked this question at different intervals throughout the evening. On autopilot she replied "I'm not sure. Joy said I could stay in the housekeeper's room. I've been trying to get in touch with my parents, but they might be away for a few days. They live in Pennsylvania, so it's kind of late to take a train." She took another dish from Catherine. "I might stay with friends."

As an only child, she couldn't take refuge in a sibling's home like others. Many of her friends had left for long weekends to see in-laws and family members. Her parents' house was miles from the train station. If they weren't expecting her there'd be no one to pick her up and living so far away from town always made her feel like she was Laura Ingles from Little House on the Prairie with nothing to do but milk the cows, gather up eggs and watch the grass grow. During winter it was worse. Cold and oppressive. No restaurant deliveries, no Blockbuster video, no diner open 24/7, nothing. Most fathers' mid-life crisis led to shiny, fast cars, expensive trips, affairs with secretaries or waitresses -- girls with low IQ and high-heeled shoes. No, her father had to get agricultural and bond with nature. Wanted to relive his childhood in the house he grew up in. Somehow he talked her mother into moving back to Pennsylvania. Betsy had stayed in New York.

The clock on the microwave blinked 11:30pm. Adian hadn't called. She was tempted to prank phone him at 2:00am. "Could you ring Mr. Baum's room please?" Once he answered she'd say, "Dick Hurts?" If Joy was still up, and if they were closer, she could have told her about this afternoon, she would have gone next, asking for Jenna Talia. She thought about this as Joy and Catherine made breakfast plans.

"E.J's?" Catherine suggested.

"First one there grabs the table…"

"In the back," Catherine finished.

Both mothers smiled. They were like two people sharing one brain.

"9:00am?" Joy said, walking everyone to the door. One of the twins was asleep in Catherine's arms, the other, wide awake and whimpering, thumb in her mouth. David juggled the bags, luggage, and kid's paraphernalia.

"Let's just order in room service," he added trying to organize the bags. "The kids will love it. Come over whenever and we'll have a Pajama party."

"Maybe the Four Seasons will give us a group rate?" Catherine joked, shifting Allison to her other hip. "Besides, if we all stay at the same place, the insurance company will have an easier time reimbursing everyone. At least they can't say, so-and-so stayed at a cheaper place."

Everyone seemed to nod at the same time, like robots obeying a command.

Betsy could already visualize them talking about her as they lulled around in the hotel in thick, terrycloth robes, the kids emptying out the mini bar, pretending it was a supermarket.

"Almost forty and not married, nothing." Catherine would say, her earrings catching the light from the chandelier.

"Does she have friends? I never see her with anyone," Chuck would add.

"I feel sorry for her," Joy would comment, cutting up Simon's food and calling him back to the makeshift picnic area they had created on the floor.

She watched them hover in the doorway waiting for the elevator. There were kisses and good-byes, the sound of a door opening, the twins' cranky voices growing fainter.

Now Joy and Chuck were staring at her, waiting for a decision.

"I think time snuck up on me," Betsy said looking from their faces to the floor. "It's kind of late to call friends. Would it be okay to stay?"

Chuck's upper lip twitched ever so slightly, but he somehow managed a smile.

"Of course." Joy was already moving swiftly towards the housekeeper's quarters.

The room was small, dreary and reeked of lemon Pledge. The mocha colored blanket matched the carpet so well that it looked as if it was floating. The walls were a dull brown and the wooden dresser could have been from her college dorm.

She stacked her belongings in the corner, trying to take up as little space as possible. She wanted to be invaluable, but invisible, like her seat filling job.

"Sorry if it seems, I don't know, uncomfortable," Joy said, getting Betsy a fresh towel.

"No. It's fine. I'm just glad to be here." She sounded like an idiot. "I mean, this is really decent of you."

"Nonsense. What are neighbors for?"

With Joy gone, the room felt claustrophobic. She changed into a T-shirt and jeans since she hadn't packed any sleepwear. She opened a window, got into bed, worried that too much dust or dirt would come in, and not wanting to disrupt anything more than she already had, closed it. There was nothing to stare out at since the room faced the back, nothing that seemed familiar.

She was still tossing and turning at 2:43am. She wished to watch TV, but thought the set might be up against the wall to Joy's mother's bedroom and didn't want to disturb them. Frustrated, she sat in one of the kid's tiny chairs in the kitchen, a pen and paper staring blankly in front of her. She wanted to put a heading up on top like she was taught in the 4th grade. Finally, the words Future plans stared back at her. The writing looked foreign to her at this hour. The words did too, as if they were misspelled, even thought she knew they weren't. The pen wasn't hers, the paper didn't have her name on it, even the kitchen seemed somehow dizzying. She added Join a book club. Then Find a movie group. See more off Broadway plays. Fill house with fresh flowers. Eat better — only organic. Learn to cook a new dish each month. She ended with Meet Men, Have Children, Make a better life.

She was up before anyone and by 8:00am had stripped the bed, emptied out the dishwasher, and made coffee and tea. She wasn't sure if she'd be invited to join the morning's outing at the Sommer's hotel suite. She tried calling the building, but got a busy signal, and it was too early to phone other homeless tenants.

She heard Simon's padded feet before he leaped into the kitchen. He was happy to see and outstretched his arms in order to be lifted up.

"You're still here," he proclaimed, "Cookie Monster says I like Cookies."

"Me too," she said kissing his cheek.

"Who doesn't?" Chuck added. She handed him a filled coffee mug. "I didn't know how you take it." She pointed to the milk and sugar she'd laid out on the table. "And juice or milk for Simon?"

"Juice. Juice," he said.

She had prepared one of each, waiting in freshly washed sippy cups. She was mid-reach to Simon when Chuck intervened. "Milk in the morning."

"Juice, juice," Simon screamed, stamping his foot. She could see Chuck's annoyance.

"Joy's showering."

"Great." There was a long pause. "So, any good stock tips?" The words fell out of her mouth. She could tell Chuck hated small talk.

"Not really."

She waited for him to say something else, and when he didn't, they both stirred their coffee, spoons clanking loudly against the ceramic.

"So, what are your plans?" he finally spit out.

"I've left a message for my parents but I don't know if they've tried to phone back. I'm not getting reception on my cell and there's still no power at the apartment so I don't know if they've left a message. They thought I was coming tomorrow, for dinner." Tomorrow she would pack another bag, take the Metro line and wait to see if her father would arrive on time, or if he would make her wait in the station on Thanksgiving while he waited for half-time or one more tackle before leaving the house. She almost couldn't bear to see herself sitting next to her mother's widowed friend, or her father's bachelor fishing buddy who'd put his hand on her knee during Christmas one year while her father carved the turkey six feet away.

Chuck nodded. Both sipped coffee.

Joy appeared, hair wet looking clean and glossy. Betsy handed her a cup of tea. "Peppermint, right?"

She smiled and they clinked glasses. Everything would be fine.

It was almost 9:00am when Betsy emerged from the shower. She had a moment of panic, a thought that maybe they had left without her and she'd be stuck, unsure of what to do. She'd find a note on the kitchen counter, next to the list she had made regarding her life. "Great having you here. Leave the room as it is, the housekeeper will clean when my mother gets back. Just close the front door behind you when you're ready to go. Joy." She dressed hurriedly and found everyone in the den, Chuck on the landline phone, Joy on her cell, Simon hypnotized by the TV screen. She almost cried when she saw them.

They took a cab to the hotel, Chuck in the front seat, the girls and Simon in the back. Simon rested his head on Betsy's arm. Warmth rose in her chest as she brushed hair out of his eyes and stared out the window watching the lights change on an empty Park Avenue. She offered to pay for the cab, but Chuck already had his wallet out, shoved a five into the driver's waiting palm.

Betsy had eaten in the Four Seasons' restaurant a few times, but had never stayed in one of the rooms. The hotel was marble. Marble floors, columns, archways, stairs. A swirl of browns and whites and grays. It was glossy and clean. Open and inviting, making Betsy instantly long to join the residency program. She hoisted Simon up so he could press the 24th floor button. Once the doors opened he ran down the hall calling for the twins, the adults trailed behind. Hello kisses were given, and though David seemed slightly surprised to find Betsy in his hotel doorway, holding a diaper bag and standing next to Joy and Chuck, sweetly invited her in.

Randel and Jamie had stopped by earlier for an apartment update and had already left to be with friends in the Village. Betsy felt badly, as if she had missed out on something. Adian was still here. She checked with the manager, knocked on his door to see if he wanted to join them, but received no answer. Perhaps he was there and didn't want to see her. Maybe he'd asked the manager to phone him should anyone come unannounced. She bet he was secretly standing by the door staring at her though the peephole snickering, "what an easy fuck." She thought of this as she sank into the room, getting high from seeing the same people in such a short time while taking in the comfortably modern suite. Large bay windows made the room feel airy, the high floor overlooked much of Manhattan. The couch was in pullout bed formation, where the twins must have slept. There was a desk, pair of swivel chairs and glass coffee table. The main bedroom was sealed off by wood-and-glass paneled doors.

"The tub fills up in sixty seconds," Alison shrieked, pulling Betsy into the bathroom.

"We take a bath this morning," the other twin stated. "Put us in!"

"In. In," Simon echoed.

She lifted each child into the huge tub, arranged them in the traditional "hear, speak, and see no evil" formation, and called the adults to come in look. Within seconds, everyone was in the bathroom.

At work, Betsy could spend hours getting to know a total stranger intimately while waiting for seating arrangements or just going through a technical rehearsal. Now she felt this way with her neighbors. They had been through something together, survived a crisis. No matter what, they'd always have this.

"Hey remember when," Betsy could say years later. By then her child would be a year or two. Her husband would be by her side, Simon and the twins would be starting first or second grade. This time, they could order dinner for her, she would be the one David would call for gift suggestions for Catherine. She'd already know what she wanted, have a little cheat-sheet she made from times she commented on what she liked as the two went window shopping. Adian was right, fire was good. This was a good thing. Maybe one of them would introduce her to a friend of theirs, making the courtship even sweeter. She'd be easily accepted, welcomed in with open arms. They could hang out at each other's apartment, like her old dorm days, no locks on doors, each apartment an extension of someone else's. All that was missing from the Sommer's suite was a roaring fire and a Trivial Pursuit game. Maybe a New Year's ball to drop and Dick Clark's irritatingly saccharine voice wishing them all health and happiness.

They returned to Joy's mother's apartment, several inches of snow blanketing the sidewalk and cars, while mounds gathered on top of anorexic-looking tree branches. Betsy's shoes were unsalvageably wet. Her feet were numb in some spots, felt like ice in others. Her teeth chattered and she was sleep-deprived. Joy was pale and tired. They looked at each other and laughed to keep from crying.

At 8:30pm they walked hesitantly down their block and were greeted by huge orange and white barber shop cylinders which sprang up from three potholes. At 20 feet high they were more then an eyesore. Plumes of gray smoke poured into the air. Their lobby smelled like a bus terminal. The carpets had been removed and large, industrial machines that cleaned the air hissed loudly. The electricity was back on, but there was still no heat or hot water. The elevators were also out of commission. It had been more than thirty-six hours since they had left their homes, but it felt longer, harder, as if they'd been though a small war.

"There's one on each floor," the super said, turning his head in the direction of the noise. "The apartments are really cold so most people haven't moved back in," he added, handing them a stapled packet of paper assessing the damages, a letter from the board, emergency procedures and numbers for the fire department, police and nearby hospitals.

The two moved slowly, carefully up the stairs pointing out burnt spots and water leaks. At the 8th floor Betsy stood in the doorway of the stairwell not knowing what to do. "Well, call me if you need anything."

"You too," Joy echoed, her brown eyes big and blinking.

She looked at her neighbor, at the sparkling ring on her finger, the diaper tote slung over her shoulder, her arms laden with garment bags, and wondered if she'd ever have her life. Wondered why she didn't already have it. She wanted to kiss her good-bye, almost leaned forward, but the moment passed and all she could think of to say was thanks. "Talk to you tomorrow. You know, about claims or whatever," anything to keep conversations going, keep the chain in motion.

From the moment she pushed open her door she was hit with a scorched, sulfur scent. She hated her apartment. Wished it had burned down. She'd love the opportunity to start over. This time she'd have roommates. Would go to graduate school or spend a year abroad like many of her friends. She set her bags down, eyed the plastic mask that lay on her dining room table. Who was she kidding. She was too old for that. She was too old for her hapless job, her singleness, for everything.

The windows had been left open and the room was dusty and cold. Black and gray specks covered her once white windowsill, making it look as if ants had invaded. Her mirrors were foggy, everything felt damp, like it had rained inside the apartment. The fridge needed emptying, clocks resetting, clothing put back and items unpacked.

She tried her parents, got their machine, then checked her own. The light blinked once. "Hi honey. Sorry we missed you. Hope you're alright." -- Her mother always spoke in short, choppy sentences, like a telegram. Sorry we missed you. Stop. Hope you're all right. Stop. -- "We were at Lon and Sue's house last night. Your father was looking at some farm property. Wish we'd have known. Bad timing I guess. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. If you want to come early, give a call. Oh, good news, Ginny is joining us for dinner, so we'll be quite a group." Her voice sounded tired and far away. She pictured her mother, a once chic New York woman in smart, sophisticated clothing, morphed into a dowdy dressed country bumpkin in an apron with patchwork flowers on it and sensible, nurse-like shoes.

She opened a bottle of wine, lit candles, acknowledged how empty the apartment felt while looking for a place to put herself. It was odd being here alone. She felt as if she'd been at camp or on a cruise with the same people for a week in a confined space and now that it was over she'd forgotten how to be by herself. Almost didn't know who she was without them.

Betsy looked out the window onto her quiet, snow-covered street, which had been reopened. The commotion was gone. The fire trucks and police cars all gone, as if it had never happened. In a few hours 34th street would be swarming with adults and children all waiting to catch a glimpse of massive Snoopy, Garfield and Underdog. Across the park at West 81st street by the Museum of Natural History people were watching the floats get fatter, sipping hot chocolate and coffee from Starbucks cups and munching on homemade cookies. It was events and activities like these which broke up the daily monotony, added a level of excitement to life.

Joy's mother lived on a high floor and overlooked Central Park. If they had stayed another night, Betsy could have seen the floats getting prepped for their big day. She could have held Simon or one of the twins while pointing to the larger-than-life characters. All over the United States people were cooking and setting tables. Guests would be filling themselves with succulent turkey, over-cooked stuffing, every traditional, generic Thanksgiving dish one would expect. The train to her parent's seemed like a torture chamber, the dinner, a death sentence.

She inserted herself between the crevice of the console and the stereo unit and cranked an old Eagles CD. She put her chest to the speaker, felt the woofer pulsating against her heart and mouthed the words "I can't tell you why. Nooo baby, I can't tell you why" along with Don Henley's gravelly voice. As her body vibrated she pretended it was Adian's body pulsating next to hers. His heart beating fast instead of the bass.

She eyed the area where they had had sex less than forty hours ago. She took off her clothing and crawled over to the spot, put her face to the nubby carpet and inhaled the lingering, burnt smell that had gotten trapped in the fabric. She breathed in deeply and took another whiff, held it tightly in her chest, like pot. She put her ear against her hardwood floor to hear if Adian was home. She did this from time to time, when she was bored, or wanted company for dinner. Usually he'd be on the phone, probably talking to friends or random women who had crushes on him, high pitched laughs and talked in questions, never ending a sentence with a single period. Where was he? Shouldn't he be knocking on her door, asking if she wanted to go out for a bite after each had settled back in and unpacked? Didn't he owe her that?

She was surveying her apartment from this position when a hat caught her eye, lying haphazardly under her console. She remembered being hit by it as they kissed, and as she reached for it with her left hand, her right rubbed the spot on her head. It was still slightly sore. The cap was faded blue from wash and wear, Mission Impossible embroidered on it. She tried it on, wanted to know what it was like to be him. She lay back down, the hat on her head, the carpet scratching at her skin and tried to picture his apartment, saw a bike, mini'mal but expensive, high-end furniture decorated by some woman from Bloomigndales while he was at work. She closed her eyes and pretended he was here, resurrected his rich, prep-school voice. She heard a door click open, then snap shut. Heard his feet, the sound of keys dropping on a table. She lingered for five minutes waiting for him to come up and see how she was, then ten. Stayed in the same spot, as if she couldn't leave, needed to know what he was doing. He pick-up the phone. She waited for hers to ring, and when she caught him mumble something to someone else and hang up, she still gave him another five minutes before pulling herself off the carpet. She walked loudly on the floor to see if that would spur any change. Nothing.

He wasn't coming up to see her.

When she could stand the silence no more she threw her laundry into a basket. She stripped her sheets, removed the pillowcases, collected the towels and went downstairs. At least she was getting exercise, she could skip the gym tomorrow for sure.

She was shocked at how terrible the basement looked. The newly laid blue freckled tile was ruined. The floor was wavy and bubbled, having melted from the heat. Much of the ceiling had caved in and large chunks of dark gray matter covered the floor. All seven machines were turned off. The dryer doors had been left open so dust and God knows what filled the insides. A cockroach, who ran over the rubble, was the breaking point.

She knocked on the super's office door to find out when the machines would be fixed, and when she received no answer, turned the brass knob and entered.

The place was a mess, smoky and moldy, though Betsy got the feeling this was its original state. The only light came from the back room that held supplies and tools. Static poured from a walkie-talkie which drowned out the Spanish music coming from an old radio. There was a TV and VCR, and a desk, piled with papers, that looked as though it had been through a small war, and that was prior to the fire. As she turned to leave, something silvery caught her eye. She thought of Catherine's earrings as she walked back to the desk. A metal toolbox lay open, a pair of pliers stared at her, as if they had been waiting for her all day. They felt cool on her skin, solid in her grasp. She ran her fingers over the raised, metal ridges. Put her left index finger in the contraception's sharp teeth and pressed. She watched the tip turn red before pulling it free, scraping her skin enough for it to bleed. She turned her attention to the ceiling. Con Ed had carelessly taped several unruly wires to the wall, which ran from the laundry room to super's office ending at the storage room. Betsy followed the messy trail with her eyes, finally settling on a place where the tape was coming apart. Wires hung down imitating week old sun-dried flavored spaghetti. All it would take is one, maybe two snips to produce some damage, create a charge or spark.

Back in her apartment, she calmly repacked her bags, as if she was doing a reenactment, and waited for the sounds of siren, waited for the hurried voices. She smiled knowing it wouldn't be long before there was a knock at her door. The bottle of champagne in her hand, the overnight bag, plastic face mask and flashlight rested by her feet. Comfort moved though her as the wailing, piercing cry of fire trucks got louder and louder.

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