This novel excerpt was written by Rebecca Flint Marx in Catapult’s first 12-Month Novel Generator graduating class
A few blocks south of 23rd Street, Jessamyn came to a park bordered by a high iron fence. When she tried to open the gate, she found it was locked. She could see a few people on the other side: two old men dozing on opposite ends of a bench, a woman in a nurse’s uniform pushing a baby carriage, a child playing with a toy car on the ground as his mother sat nearby, staring into space. The park was covered in a haze of tender greenery, and fragrant with the earthy smell of spring.
Jessamyn closed her eyes and breathed deeply, and suddenly thought she might cry. She had the perplexing urge to call her mother, to try to explain to her how beautiful it all was and tell her that it was all going to be okay, because this wasn’t a city at all but a storybook, complete with a secret garden, and how could a city be scary or mean if in the middle of it all there was this, and even if she couldn’t go inside she could look, and inhale it into her blood.
She was trying to decide if she should actually call her mother when she realized that she had to pee, badly. At school, there were bathrooms everywhere, but here, they seemed to be the one thing that the city didn’t have. She looked around, trying not to panic. She didn’t know how to tell a hotel apart from an apartment building, but there was a beige and white monolith across from the park that looked promising. She ran across the street, slowing as she neared the build- ing’s entrance so that she wouldn’t appear flustered. A doorman gave her a little nod as he ushered her inside, and she found herself standing on a thick red carpet in a vast lobby, staring at an immense chandelier that hung from a high ceiling.
Her first impulse was to turn around and run back outside. Surely, she must be trespass- ing; it seemed impossible that just anyone was allowed to walk in off the street and be a part of this. But her bladder twinged insistently, and she made herself cross the lobby’s long span to the reception desk.
“Excuse me,” she said to the uniformed man who peered down at her. “Could you please tell me where one might find the ladies’ room?”
The man gave her a faint smirk. “One might find it down the hallway to the right.”
“Thank you,” she said, coloring. One? she thought as she walked down the hall. Jesus. What is wrong with you.
The bathroom was empty. After she flushed the toilet, she stood in front of the mirror and considered what she saw. She looked presentable enough: she was wearing a pair of brown corduroy hip huggers and a denim jacket, and both of them were clean, or clean enough. She smoothed her hair back. “It’s okay,” she said to her reflection.”You live here now.”
She returned to the lobby, intending to leave, but from its far corner she heard the shiny chink of ice hitting glass and felt thirsty. She crossed the floor, ignoring the man at the desk, and found a cavernous room strewn with overstuffed chairs. There were a few people occupying them, at least one of whom appeared to be fast asleep, his lower lip hanging thickly over his chin. She walked past them and took a seat at the bar, where a lone bartender stood mixing a drink.
“I’ll have a Coke,” she said. He nodded wordlessly.
“You here for the band?”She turned and saw a man sitting at the end of the bar, grinning at her. Her eyes went to the gap between his teeth, and then to his sideburns, which were long and strangely luxurious, and then to his green suede jacket and the string of wooden beads around his neck. Handsome, with the tiniest hint of sleaze around the edges. Here we go, she thought.
“The one on the eighth floor. The English dudes.”
She shook her head. “Just passing through.”
“You look like one of their wives, except younger.”
“Yeah.” He reached for his drink. “And prettier.”
They held each other’s eye for a second, exchanging an acknowledgment of the offer on the table. She looked away and took in the grand sweep of the room. It was so easy here, to travel without really going anywhere; you just walked through a door and everything changed. She took a swallow of Coke and thought, why not. Someone needed to be her inaugural New York City lay, her maiden voyage to the beds of a strange land. She’d had a few opportunities she’d foregone out of indifference, but now she felt her earlier hunger evolve into specific need. Spring was in the air, and a man with a gap in his teeth wanted to get into her pants in the middle of a fancy hotel. She turned to face him.
“Are you staying here?”
“On the eighth floor.”
“With the band?”
He nodded. “I’m with the label. Just flew in from L.A.”
“What does that mean, you’re with the label?”
“You mean what’s my job?” He laughed. “I’m here to keep an eye on things. Make sure no one gets into too much trouble.” He winked. “What’s your job?”
She looked down at the bag by her feet.“I’m a cellist.”
“Interesting. You look like one.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ve got a long neck. Hey, let me buy you a real drink.”His room overlooked the park, and she went immediately to the window to look down at it. She could see everything now, the winding paths and the tops of people’s heads, all so small and vulnerable. It made her feel powerful, and when she felt his hand on her shoulder she turned and kissed him with almost giddy force.
There was a huge bed in the middle of the room, covered in sheets that looked like they had been spun out of cream. When he laid her down she thought she might fall asleep; the bed was so soft, softer than anything she’d ever touched. Instead she let him unzip her pants and slide them down her legs, and then remove her socks. He unbuttoned his shirt, displaying a pair of freckled shoulders and a long silvery pink scar that ran below his rib cage.
“Childhood accident,” he said, his eyes following hers.
“Oh,” she said, because she didn’t want to know more.
The effects of the two rum and Cokes he’d bought her downstairs made her brain feel like it had been upholstered in puffy fabric. The city was hilarious, she thought as she watched him take off his pants. One minute you were standing locked outside of a private park; the next, you were eight stories high, staring at the erect, slightly crooked penis of a man whose name you had no interest in learning. As he laid down next to her and put his mouth on her stomach, she decided that she was going to live here forever.
Afterwards, she put her bra back on while he rolled a joint. They sat next to each other, passing it back and forth and not saying much. It was dark outside now, and when he fell asleep she slid off the bed and crept about putting on her clothes. His pants and jacket were still lying on the floor. She reached for the jacket, wanting to stroke the green suede, and found his wallet sitting heavily in one of the pockets.
She pulled it out and cradled it in her palm. It was made of smooth brown leather, almost as soft as the bed had been. She glanced at him, fast asleep and snoring softly, and opened the wallet. Its billfold was crammed with tens and twenties and fifties. She hesitated. It was wrong, but was it really so wrong to want that feeling, that delicious, hilarious feeling of ease, to last a little longer?
She answered the question by extracting two tens and a twenty from the billfold, then returned the wallet to the pocket and the jacket to its place on the floor. She grabbed her shoes and let herself out, the door closing behind her with a soft but decisive click.
Rebecca Flint Marx is a features editor at Eater. A James Beard award-winning writer, her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and WIRED.