Tricks of Light

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I don’t know what it was about Jordan. She had this power over people. She could make them do things they might not otherwise do. She could convince you of things that weren’t true, until you not only believed them, but became a crusader for her untruths. She was vindictive, too. She didn’t just make up stories, she made up vicious stories about people she didn’t like and spread them around just for the fun of it. When we were twelve, she took a cup of grape juice and upended it on my mother’s new white carpet in the family room. I was so stunned I couldn’t even speak. It had been utterly unprovoked and senseless. While I was standing there with my mouth open, she shrieked as though in surprise and when my mom came running in, she produced these perfectly believable fat tears and apologized profusely. It was an accident, she kept saying, it was an accident. And then my Mom, whose face had blanched at the sight of her expensive new purchase ruined, had been forced to redirect her attention toward comforting the apparently inconsolable Jordan and reassuring her that it was okay.

I can’t say I was sad when she died. We were sixteen, and had largely gone our separate ways by then. She in the popular crowd and I was in with the artsy group. We still talked sometimes and gave each other rides home since we were next-door neighbors and all, but she was more of a “frenemy” than a friend, and I tried to keep her at arm’s length as much as I could. She used me. I was her sounding board; the person who had known her longer than anybody; so she told me the truth. About her not really liking her boyfriend, Miller that much, but dating him because he had a nice car and was good-looking; about stealing money from her parents to buy marijuana, about having cut class to ride a train to New York city for the day. She knew I wouldn’t tell anyone, because that was not my style. And she knew I wouldn’t judge her because I had long realized she was dangerous and no longer felt strongly about it one way or another.

She died in the early morning hours after the junior prom. Jordan had been riding in a car with a bunch of other kids who had gone to an after-party where there had been drinking and probably drugs. The guy at the wheel was Jimmy Lovelace, best friend to Miller, Jordan’s boyfriend. Jordan was sitting behind Jimmy and next to her, behind Miller, was Sammi Rice, Jimmy’s girlfriend. Later, witnesses would say that they were traveling at a perfectly reasonable speed at first and then at a stop light, just as it changed to green, or maybe a few moments too soon, Jimmy had gunned the engine of his father’s black BMW 750. They had narrowly missed another car that was still in the intersection and Jimmy had wrenched the steering wheel hard left to avoid them and slammed into a tree. All four of them were killed.

On the news, when we all saw what had happened to that car, it made sense that there were closed caskets at all four funerals. I didn’t cry for Jordan, even though I’d known her for so long. It was almost predictable, that she would go out as violently as she did. My mother kept saying, “It’s okay to cry, darling, it’s okay to cry.” But I didn’t even want to. For the longest time, that’s what I felt the worst about, that I hadn’t even wanted to cry when she died, not that she was dead.

Just as I’d always wanted to through high school, I moved to New York for college and after art and design school, took a job designing fabrics at a small design house in Lower Manhattan. I lived with my boyfriend Gareth in a tiny walk-up in SoHo. I had just about forgotten that Jordan King existed until the morning my boss, Bobby walked into the loft, his hand resting on the shoulder of a slender young woman with dark hair and green eyes. She was trendily attired and pretty, and had a knowing look in her eyes, like someone much older than her apparent twentysomething years.
“Everybody, listen up,” Bobby said. “We have a new addition to our team. This is Tina Webster. Tina’s going to be joining our artisan team staring tomorrow. So please make her feel welcome . . .”

There was a desultory round of applause and then Bobby went around the room, introducing her to each of us one by one. Something about the way she moved made me feel strange, like I’d met her before. But not just as though we met, but as though we knew each other. And something else, I felt. It was apprehension, maybe even dread, and I couldn’t explain why. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she and Robert got closer and without thinking about it, got up from my drafting and went rushing into the bathroom. Once there, I locked myself in the stall and took a deep breath, talking myself past it. It was a panic attack, that was all, I told myself. I was highly competitive and I always sized new designers up when they joined the firm, it was what I did. And this Tina person looked so professional, and so competent and put together, that was all. I was panicking because I perceived her as yet another yardstick against which I would be measured, against which I would measure myself.

Reassured by my own explanation, I exited the stall and went to splash cold water on my face. I took two more deep breaths and went back out into the loft. Bobby and Tina Webster were exiting the room, headed back in the direction of Bobby’s office. My drafting partner, Sean let out a low whistle.

“She’s a Pratt grad,” he said. “Did you know her?”

“Nope.”

“Sexy, too,” Sean said.

“Try to keep your libido in check, would you?” I snapped.

“Oh relax,” Sean said. “You still have my heart. And besides, a girl like that? I’d be lucky if she let me lick her shoe.”

“Shut up, Sean,” I said. But after a moment my curiosity got the better of me. “What was she like?”

“A little reserved maybe,” he shrugged. “Good thing she’s in Artisan. My hands would shake if I had to draw around her.”

“Okay, you can go back to shutting up now,” I said.

I often worked late on Fridays because Gareth never got home before three a.m. anyway. He was a bartender uptown in a pricey boutique hotel and on Fridays, celebrities sometimes wandered in, so he made crazy amounts of money in tips. It wasn’t uncommon for him to come home with a wad of cash that amounted to enough to cover a good portion of our rent. Because of this, I got to look like a dedicated employee, burning the midnight oil on many a Friday. Bobby would be on his way out and locking up and he would see me at my table and say, “go home, Emerson, it’s the weekend for god’s sake.” And I would get to pretend that I hadn’t noticed the time and reluctantly pack up and leave as he secured the loft behind us.

Today though, the whole office was going for drinks. It was Kelly’s birthday. She worked in Whimsical, which was mostly children’s fabrics, consisting of cute little animals and plants and flowers, which suited her personality perfectly. She was a bouncy little redhead from the Midwest who despite having lived in Manhattan for eight years still seemed not to believe her good fortune to have this job and this life. I liked her, so along with the rest of the group, traipsed out into the damp fall evening to find a bar, squeeze inside and fight my way to the bar for a watered down beer from the tap.

Fortunately, when we got there, to a place called The Un-Bar, the guys managed to score us a couple tables. It was early enough that Happy Hour hadn’t begun in earnest and the wait staff was still taking orders for food. Some of us ordered burgers and we got a couple pitchers and I was beginning to have a good time, goofing off with Sean, teasing Kelly and flirting with Jason from Accounting when she walked in. Tina Webster looked about the bar for awhile and upon spotting our group, smiled and made a beeline toward us. As soon as I saw her, I felt exactly as I had earlier and that quickly, the enjoyment of the evening was sucked out of the room.

“Hi!” she touched Kelly on the shoulder. “Thank you for inviting me.”

Next to me, Sean slid over, squeezing me into the corner. “C’mon,” he said. “Have a seat.

I shot him a nasty look, but he was too occupied to notice. Tina Webster shed her chic coat and perched on the edge of the seat beside Sean.
“What’re we drinking?” she asked, indicating the pitcher of beer.

“Anything you want,” Sean said. “This one’s on Bobby.”

Tina Webster laughed and I froze. In an instant, I recognized her. The hair, the eyes, the voice and now the laugh. Jordan. She was a dead ringer for Jordan. If she had grown up, this was what she would have looked like. I reached a shaky hand out for my water and when I did, hers reached across Sean’s and grabbed it. It was cold from having been outside, but to me it felt like an icy grip from the dead. It took everything I had in me not to yank it away.

“Dale,” she said. “You weren’t around when I met everyone else, so I just wanted to introduce myself . . .”

Sean leaned back against the seat so that we could look directly at each other, which was the last thing I wanted. Up close, the resemblance was even more startling. The same shaped face, the same full mouth, and the coloring of her skin and hair. She even sounded like Jordan a little bit. It was the same feeling as the one you get whenever you smell a familiar smell; suddenly images and people and places and times you thought you had forgotten are evoked. That was what it was like looking into Tina Webster’s eyes. For one insane moment, I wondered whether the accident hadn’t even happened. Maybe Jordan hadn’t died, maybe she was alive and had moved away, and now . . . It was ridiculous, of course.

I forced myself to smile at her and nodded.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Welcome to the team.”

“Thank you,” she said. She was still holding my hand, still looking in my eyes as though she didn’t want to lose my attention. “I hope we have an opportunity to work together.”

“Not likely,” Sean interjected. “With that high-brow stuff you guys do in Artisan.”

A brief flicker of annoyance crossed Tina’s features and she let go of my hand, allowing Sean to sit forward once again. For the remainder of the evening, through the drinks and the jokes and the crosstalk and music, I was painfully aware of Tina Webster sitting on the other side of Sean. She made me uncomfortable and I wanted to leave, but my only way out would be past her, and I was afraid for some reason that if I said I was leaving, she would leave with me and ask whether we could share a cab or something. So I decided to wait her out, and around midnight, she excused herself and told everyone to have a great weekend.

“Do you not like her or something?” Sean asked me when she was gone.

“Of course not,” I said quickly. “I don’t even know her.”

“The whole night you talked to everyone at the table except for Tina. You women sure can be tough on each other.”

“ It’s got nothing to do with that,” I said sharply. “I just don’t know her yet, is all.”

“Are you sure?” Sean asked.

“What do you mean am I sure? Of course I’m sure. I just met her today.”

“Because she kept asking questions about you.”

“Did she?” I turned in my seat to look directly at him. “What kind of questions?”

“How long you’ve worked at Kaufman’s, that kind of thing. Maybe you did know her at Pratt and she’s wondering why you don’t remember her.”

“I didn’t know her at Pratt,” I said forcefully.

“Okay, okay. Or maybe she’s into you, who knows?”

“What else did she ask?”

“She asked whether you were from New York . . . look, you must have met her before. That’s probably what it is.”

“Probably,” I said, reaching for my beer.

#

Jordan’s and my mother considered themselves partners in parenting. Both had husbands who were hard-charging career-minded Type A men who were seldom home, and little girls to raise. So if I took ballet, so too did Jordan. If Jordan was enrolled in gymnastics, my mother enrolled me too. We were almost always together, Jordan and I. So it didn’t surprise me when she showed up at the Saturday morning art class that I’d strong-armed my mother into paying for. I was thirteen, and had always known that I loved art but had only just begun to entertain the fantasy of one day doing it as a career. I’d seen a documentary on Jackson Pollock on television and been moved to tears by his painting Convergence. My father, walking by the television had remarked that it just looked like a bunch of scribbles to him and I was at first appalled and then had felt superior because I looked at it and I got it! I actually got Jackson Pollock and my father who seemed to me to be superhuman at most things did not. That was when I decided that I should buckle down. If I wanted to make art, then that’s what I should do.

I was unsurprised, but mildly annoyed when Jordan showed up. She had a way of sucking all the air out of the room. I wanted to concentrate and be able to get the instructor’s honest opinions. I wanted to become someone else in this class, the new artistic self that I envisioned. But with Jordan there, I worried that it might not be possible. Our first in-class assignment was to draw a still life. Simple enough, it was a bowl of fruit set in the middle of the room. The class was arranged around it, so we each had different vantage points. Jordan was next to me, so what we saw of the bowl of fruit was virtually identical. After an hour of sketching and shading, I was done. Most of the other kids were still working, including Jordan, so I waited. Our instructor, who was a university art professor who had some local success of his own walked about the room and took in everyone’s progress, making encouraging comments and suggestions as he went. Then he stopped in front of my work. He regarded it for a moment and then put a hand on my shoulder.

“Have you taken lessons before?” he asked.

“No,” I squeaked.

“Well,” he said. “Very impressive. You seem to have an innate understanding of depth and perspective. Very impressive.”

Then he stopped at Jordan’s easel and made a sound that was noncommittal at best, as though he wanted to neither praise nor criticize her. I snuck a glance at her work. Her fruit were ill-shapen, her bowl cartoonish. It seemed inconceivable that she had spent almost an hour on it. I looked away, secretly pleased that I was better than her. After class her mother showed up before mine and I got a ride home, but left my satchel in their car. Later, Jordan called to say she would drop it off. When she left, I opened my satchel to find the drawing, eager to show my mother the work that had gained me a positive review from the instructor, but it wasn’t there. When I called Jordan, she was haughty and dismissive.

“I don’t know what happened to it,” she said.

“It was in my bag,” I insisted. “I folded it and put it there.”

“Well I have no clue where it might be,” she snapped.

“You had my bag!” I said, feeling angry tears spring to my eyes. “You must have taken it.”

“Why would I take it?” she demanded. “It’s obvious what happened, Dale.”

“What?” I asked desperately.

“It fell out,” she said calmly. “It fell out and someone put it in the trash.”

And then she hung up on me.

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