"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 contain in his body, sometimes.
There was a click in his brain just then, like a key turning, and his muscles unlocked; he moved forward, pushing the door open, and he was outside.
The night air was sticky. The sidewalks still radiated the sun’s heat. He had seen her go to the right. Trotting just a bit, he looked for and found, that gleam of gold half a block ahead.
He wasn’t exactly stalking her, not really, he told himself. Definitely not spying. Maybe when he caught up, he would say hello? Or maybe say nothing, and just make sure that she was safe walking alone?
Mostly, he just wanted to know where she was going. Probably someplace wonderful. He had always wanted to go to a club or a disco. He wanted to hear the music and see everything there was to see. Adrenalin rushed through his veins making him a bit giddy. As he got closer to her he slowed himself down by hopping a bit as he walked.
They turned south onto Washington Street. Was she going to a gala at the Whitney? It gave him a thrill of pleasure mixed with fear when he realized, no, it wasn’t the Whitney: they were headed into the Village. Even if he was with friends, he was under no circumstances allowed to leave Chelsea. Ever since the news about that boy who got kidnapped in the spring, he wasn’t allowed to do anything anymore. He would no doubt be in big trouble, but he had already taken it too far. There was no sense turning back.
Mrs. Lish was walking fast, and her purposeful strides were different from the way women usually walked: Nick figured out that it must be because she was not carrying a purse, bumping around, holding her back. That would mean she didn’t have a pair of shoes to change into, kept in a bag. The canvas tennis shoes snagged at his brain. The rest of her was so shimmery and resplendent. And her pale hair was a perfect cloud of frizz, like cotton candy. Some men on a street corner started to hassle her, Hey baby, you gonna make time for me? Huh? One of them even reached to clutch her arm, and Nick was preparing to bolt forward, make himself known, chase them away. But Mrs. Lish, who was usually so shy and retiring, yelled out suddenly, loudly, like a furious bobcat, Duten pesicci mat-tui! And the men sprung back from her as though scalded.
Sometimes he forgot she wasn’t from this country. Was it lonely? Was she as bored as he was? It could not have been fun being married to old Mr. Lish. All at once, he wished he could just make her laugh. He always made other kids laugh. He could say all the words to Rapper’s Delight really fast and sound just like the guy from the song. He was really good at dancing. He knew all the dances. He could really do the Robot, especially. Sometimes he would turn his eyelids inside out when he did it, and people would scream it was so funny…
She was just so sad looking sometimes. Her wrists were so narrow, the pulse in them probably like the heartbeat of a hummingbird. He couldn’t believe a baby came out of her. He thought he saw a nanny or an au pair taking the baby out once. He didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl.
They walked and walked. The streets were feeling livelier the further down they got. There was a balding man with an earring and a snake around his neck, swaying like he was in a trance. A bunch of glittering people were people standing outside a nightclub from which he could hear Donna Summer singing Bad girls, talking bout the sad girls. He had seen her on TV, tall and beautiful and wearing a wild-looking wig. When she performed she looked so aloof. Detached. Which was like how she sang. Two drag-queens drifted across the street in sequined dresses, repeating the punch line to a joke in unison and laughing hard, heads thrown back.
But every time he thought Mrs. Lish might stop and enter one of the doorways, she just kept on going. Oh well. Even when she did, he hadn’t yet figured out what to say to her. He had to pretend, somehow, that he just happened to be strolling there. Maybe he could lie, say he was fourteen instead of thirteen.
She was cutting across the street now, rushing across the busy road, headed towards the area underneath the elevated West Side Highway. That was a place he definitely wouldn’t be allowed to go to. Muggers hid in the shadows. Although he and Cody once walked on top of the abandoned highway, all the way from Canal Street to the Bowery. Hudson River to the right. On the other side, further down, the city’s sharp silhouette, with its the World Trade Center, like some kind of space-age futuristic dream.
Before it had collapsed and closed down, his mother said, the West Side Highway had been dangerous for driving. Narrow lanes, sharp curves, dangerous exit ramps. But she had ridden on it when she first came to the city as a young girl right out of college and had thought it was thrilling, like a roller coaster ride taking her into her new life.
He remembered that day on the empty highway. There were some abandoned cars up there with broken dashboard glass. Some sunbathers. People roller-skating. And all around them, the horizon of the city that you couldn’t see when you were down in it.
He thought of his young mother riding down the West Side Highway as a girl, all the dreams she had back then. She was going to be a journalist His mind boggled, for a moment, to think of how when a person was born, they had the potential for a thousand different lives, but somehow, over time, because of choices and choices and choices, they all end up with just one.
What would have happened if his mother had worked for a newspaper like she wanted? What if his parents hadn’t gotten a divorce, and his dad hadn’t taken a job on the West Coast? What if Nick had been born a girl, or in a country like Romania like Mrs. Lish. What if his grandparents had never even met? Where would that leave him? He may very well have never been born…
It made him dizzy, to think so much of chance. And yet somehow, it made him feel more defiant. More determined to follow Mrs. Lish. He wanted to make things happen. He wasn’t sure if he even believed in God or not, so he knew he had one chance to really live life. She must know it, too. That’s why she was running away in her tennis shoes. She knew there was something more. Maybe she could lead him there.
It was immediately dark and dank and echoey as they went under the overpass. But quiet, except for the minute stirrings of what must have been rats. He was glad they did not stop.
It was the waterfront she was headed to. To the piers.
Now he knew he would really be in trouble. Everyone knew about the piers, how bad it was. The things that went on…l, he wasn’t sure exactly what went on, to tell the truth. It was spoken of only obliquely by the adults around him, they would dart glances his way and he’d pretend not to be listening. But they never said more.
It was dark here without streetlight, but certain forms revealed themselves in the moonlight as his eyes adjusted. The ruined warehouses with knocked-out windows and crumbling walls. There were graffiti tags just like everywhere, but there were enormous murals, too. Nudes, angels with sorrowful eyes and large hands, and large genitals. Creatures that looked mythological. That, and the long wooden pier, actually crumbling apart into the water, made him think of Pompeii.
But the place wasn’t dead. The place wasn’t empty. It teemed with people in the darkness. He couldn’t tell if they were men or women. Some laughed, some fought, some murmured low. Sections of the warehouses had no walls left at all, and he could see right in. He swore he could see people scurry by, and they wore no clothes.
Everything felt very strange and frightening to him, and he thought, now. Now would be the time to make his presence known. He would tell her that maybe they could turn around. That maybe he could show her the view from the top of the highway, how it had been when he walked there with her stepson. He could tell her that when you look at the city at night, the sodium vapor could mix with the incandescent lights of the city, making it gentle, making it like a painting, and he could show it to her right now. Because even though he was young, it didn’t mean that he didn’t know things. He knew a horizon when he saw one.
But she was moving away from him, faster now, onto the rotten wooden pier that jutted so far out into the water. The planks were soft and yielding under his feet. He could smell the briny sea, mixed with that soft sweetness. He knew he could fall right through, but he kept going. Because at the end she would have to stop….
When she came to the part where the structure buckled into nothingness, she did stop. She kicked off the canvas tennis shoes. Then she removed her gold slip of a dress, lifting it over her head in one swift motion, and she was wearing nothing underneath. The shock of her white body, bared so suddenly like that, stopped him in his tracks. He had never seen a naked woman before.
So thin, more delicate than he could imagine. Just a sliver, really, against the immense dark of the sky. So barely there, but also sharp and keen as a knife. And he felt the cruel blade of that knife stick under his rib cage and straight up into his heart to see the way she paused for just one suspended moment before she jumped.
Nick rushed as close to the edge as he could get. He looked down to see what he could, breathing hard: there was something there in the water, he could just make out. But he saw enough to know that it was a seal. He knew by the pebble-gray speckles and the wet glisten of its rough fur He may have even caught a glimpse of its dark, grave eyes and its bristling whiskers before it rolled and flipped beneath the surface. He knew what he had seen, and it had been a transformation, metamorphosis, of a beautiful woman into a selkie. He’s read about the selkies in a book of legends once. He had seen the old woodcuts, and he knew: he knew what he saw. And he knew for the rest of his life he would feel gifted and shaken by the privilege. And even if he did become an ignorant grownup one day, he would never let anyone convince him that it wasn’t so.
He didn’t know why, but he took the gold dress that had blown away just a little bit and caught on the exposed nail in a piece of buckled wood. It shimmered, and it was so light in his fingers, it weighed nothing, nothing at all. He didn’t know why, but he clutched it tight and ran. Ran fast like a thief.
Leah Erickson's work has appeared in Pantheon, The Saint Ann's Review, The Coachella Review, and others. She is the author of the novels, "The Brambles," "Blythe of the Gates," and "The Gilded Lynx."