"West Side Highway" by Leah Erickson

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

When she emerged from the elevator, he was surprised to see that she was alone. Usually, she was with her husband, on the way to a book launch or a gallery opening or a disco. But this time it was just her, looking particularly pale and slight, wearing a shiny gold dress. The dress had thin straps and was shaped sort of like one of his mother’s slips, but then again, completely unlike it. It draped low, showing the delicate ridge of her sternum. A nightlife dress, a going-out dress, but worn as lightly as an afterthought. The elevator was mirrored on all sides so it was like one of those trick rooms at the carnival: her reflected beauty was multiplied and stretched into infinity.

Nick dropped the card he had just drawn. The jack of spades. He had been lonesome and stir crazy, sitting in the lobby of the apartment building to stay out of his mother’s hair. He had been playing solitaire. On some nights Julio, the doorman, taught him how to play poker, but Julio was distracted that night, on the phone a lot, having whispered arguments with someone unknown. So Nick had been slumped in a wing chair, slapping cards down on the little ashtray table and watching people go in and out of the building.

He came alert to see Mrs. Lish. He knew she had had a baby not long ago and had kept behind closed doors. She was married to his friend Cody’s father. Cody’s father was much older, though. He owned a string of nightclubs, and he had capped teeth and a full head of hair, though it was gray. And Cody was spending a lot more time with his mother in the Hamptons. He would probably begin ninth-grade out there, and Nick would hardly ever see him anymore.

Some people, Nick’s mother world say whenever they passed the couple on the street, or just shared the elevator with them. Some people just don’t understand that you can’t just make up your life as you go along. We make choices in life. Things force our hands! You can’t just start another life like suddenly turning onto a freeway exit. That’s not how it works!

Mrs. Lish, he knew, was the freeway exit his mother spoke of. Mr. Lish had left Cody’s mother for her. Mrs. Lish had been a model, not in the catalogues but in the fat glossy fashion magazines. Nick had seen some of these photos, all bright, hotly overlit. Mrs. Lish was sometimes posed very oddly, in an evening gown with a chained dog attacking her, or in a field floodlit by a helicopter. Her long blond hair was always frizzed and teased out in a staticky cloud. Her lips painted red with a gloss so wet it reflected. Shimmery eyelids usually half shut as though she were experiencing a shudder of ecstasy. A single name, eponymous logo of a great designer, was usually in minimalistic script at the bottom. She had to be one of the biggest models of 1979.

But in real life, Mrs. Lish did not resemble this creature at all. She was tall but fragile as a stalk. Spoke in a quiet stuttering voice in an Eastern European accent. The agencies kidnap those girls from the Eastern Bloc, it’s a goddamn shame, his mother said. Poor girl. I’m sure Liz is thrilled about David’s new child bride.

Mrs. Lish was always nice to Nick, greeting him shyly and deferentially when he came to watch TV with Cody, quickly disappearing somewhere else in the apartment. He didn’t visit their apartment much these days, but he would sometimes see her on the arm of Mr. Lish as they were on their way out for the evening. They would always stop to say hello, or Mr. Lish would, Nick, my boy, we miss your face! Cody will be here next weekend, you should come up! They would be so glamorous, he in an open-neck white shirt with blazer and jeans, languorous and richly tanned. She in satin or feathers or beads. Once even some kind of turban. Nick would watch in awe as they made their way out the plate glass doors into the promise of the evening. He could only guess what kind of places they went to.

But now, Mrs. Lish was alone, and she did not seem to know Nick, did not look at him. She passed him in a rush, and he was able to see that she was not wearing the usual strappy sandals, but a pair of white canvas tennis shoes, grayed and crushed at the backs. They did not go with the shimmery gold slip, not at all.

Julio was hunched over the phone, so did not come out to hold the door open. Nick sprung up, he would hold the door open himself, then he would catch her eye, but she was too fast; she opened the door, pulling in the noise of the street. The honking and shouts and siren wails all made a kind of cacophonous music that swelled, filling the room for just a moment before the door shut and it was gone again. Nick was left staring at his own reflection in the plate glass. A tall gangly boy with humorous eyes and spiky dark hair, a half-smile of anticipation still on his face. Transparent as an apparition.

But the city lights on the other side were real and beckoned to him.

All at once, he felt a keening inside of him. Conflicting desires held him fast. His mother said he was old enough to do what he wanted, as long as he didn’t leave the lobby. But he had nothing to do. Julio was brushing him off. He could not return to his own apartment where his mother, he knew, was stooped over in the circle of lamplight, going over numbers reports. She was under a lot of stress recently. He was a disruption. He could never be still. Never just sit. He had so much life in him it felt like too much to con