By Mike Lee -
“This world is mine,” Penny said to herself, loud enough to startle the woman lounging on the park bench, interrupting her reading of an Italian comic book, fumetti, they call those books over there, for God only knows why, because comic books are comic books, she thought, unless you were highbrow and pretentious, therefore you referred to them as graphic novels. The woman gave Penny the stink eye, fumetti grasped tightly. Then, diffidently, Penny shrugged and walked on.
Penny mulled further upon the notion that she possessed the world while walking through the night, on this only Friday of Fashion Week at Bryant Park. Manhattan was in the depths of early Autumn, hot as hell, and sweaty and stinky in the subway that Penny rose Lazarus from.
Her mind wandered as Penny walked in, dressed down weekender night high heeled sandals, drainpipe blue jeans, and her white cotton top, with fringes dangling from the shoulders. She let her hair down to catch the first breeze on the evening; dishwater blonde waves a little flat in the heat of the September night, but that wind shall come soon because Penny willed it so. A slight burst of air conditioning through the opening door from the green tent on her left succeeds in lifting her burden of follicles above her ears, buttressing her view this world was hers.
If her arrogance masked her insecurities, she wore this mask gracefully through clear grey eyes, shimmering under floodlights. Penny got paid, electronically deposited check covering the rent in the enormous complex she shared with two roommates she saw when Saturday shopping and Sunday cleaning, the weekly girls’ night, and occasional DVDs of Mean Girls to guffaw over how they were rather like the main characters. They saw enough similarities to pray there was no hell. Also, the sprawling complex where Penny lived isn’t really in the Village, but close enough to say she did by not lying—just fibbing a little—but that was all right, a behavioral trait expected, tolerated in a world where nothing is precisely as it is believed to be.
Penny turned left, passing the mahjong and chess players on both sides of the concrete path as she made her way toward the reception, where she wrangled an invitation from work. She passed the carousel, wrapped in plastic sheets, closed for the evening, and as she passed, her eyes lingered on a pink bunny rabbit, reminding her of the one she rode as a child at a carnival in Ohio.
Her grandparents took her there. She smiled at that day, feeling like she was riding the sun on a leash, and how on the drive back to the house, Penny looking out the window, straining against the shoulder belt, staring through the tinted windows of how it all felt different, the excitement, the joy, and the power of being free, grasping the leather straps, holding them tight, believing she was above the sky and stars, the clouds and land below; above it all, astride the sun.
Penny smiled and stepped to the back of the line. She reached into her bag, pulled out the printed envelope with the invite still inside, and waited patiently as the line moved slowly forward. Penny remembered how after coming back home from Ohio, she began reading more, mostly the books she received for Christmas, and began drawing, mostly pictures of the sun and clouds, with her riding or flying above the clouds, putting herself at the very top of the image, arms spread like a bird, over the houses and mountains and ocean she put into the composition.
The party was located in the Bartos Forum on the ground floor at the New York Public Library. When entering the room, with its majestically high glass and iron dome ceiling, Penny thought this was well worth the half-hour wait. The interior was equally expansive, with four beaux-arts columns, black-lit with the shadows silhouetted against the navy curtains put up for the event.
The event was sponsored by one of her agency’s clients, and although Penny was uninvolved with their account, she was interested in this particular fashion house and took care that morning to dress in their merchandise. Made sense, she supposed.
However, Penny thought doing this was on the wayside of tacky. As an assistant art director for an advertising agency that somehow survived the 2008 economic crisis intact enough to hire and eventually promote her, Penny long learned the wisdom of making the rounds and networking, and she hoped to score some interest as well as to satisfy her curiosity. This was the first Fashion Week Penny could attend; her busy production schedules in the previous two years prevented her from being part of the party. Tonight as she passed through the crowd, hoping to meet up with Clarice and Gita, her colleagues in the art department, she believed with certitude that she was riding the sun.
She spotted an HBO cable series actor gliding by, and their eyes met. Nonplussed, Penny smiled shyly before her eyes moved elsewhere in the crowd under the glass dome. Unlike Clarice and Gita, Penny was not too keen on meeting celebrities, in fact, flatly disinterested. Instead, she had career goals in mind and hoped for a few introductions to potential connections for an eventual linear career move, maybe into one of the fashion magazines or in the in-house art management groups. Since the crisis, one usually stayed put and hung on unless laid off. Fortunately, her job remained relatively secure; she worked on some solid accounts with long-term contracts and, as well, her boss found Penny’s work superlative. However, Penny never lacked in ambition, though for five years, she remained patient, sometimes testing the waters, discreetly handing out business cards, and even briefly taught a class on graphic design at the Learning Annex to bolster her resume. However, secure as she was, Penny grew dissatisfied and bored. She wanted a new opportunity, so she began her journey to this event.
Penny noticed suddenly a difference between this event and the others she had gone to over the years since she moved to New York, first to attend art school at Pratt, and the years at the agency. She felt she could actually taste the excitement as if something was about to happen. She experienced this sensation in the past, particularly when she rode on the carousel as a little girl in Ohio. A sense of predestination, of fate, and Penny began to feel a growing sense of excited anticipation upon realizing this. She crossed over the carpet to the wine table, picked a Cabernet, and turned to sip, sizing up the crowd before her, scanning them left to right, looking for Clarice and Gita. This moment was an awakening, an epiphany. Penny looked up at the ceiling, the strobe lights dancing and moving over the cut glass, giving off a kaleidoscope of colors. Penny was synesthetic, so the effect was electrifying. She saw fireworks, spinning pinwheels, sparks jetting across the glass in broken patterns.
Penny stared at the ceiling lights dancing above her. Then, finally, she realized she could control them: blue left, green right, yellow crossing red, goldenrod turning and crossing fuchsia turning a figure eight as violet clashed with gold and silver and bronze curled into a fetal position as orange surrounded while red runs roughshod in a dance with blue, and black goes on the attack with white and pink allied, across glass and iron while Penny rode the sun.
The night came down, with the stars and sky, and wrapped as a cloak, tightening about Penny’s neck like a noose. She sat slumped, legs sprawled, at the base of a column on the subway platform. Her bag was at her feet; Penny had already flung the heels in, swapping out with her scuffed black ballet flats, heels worn down already, but she didn’t care at this point how they looked. She had pulled her hair back, felt hot, and wanted to puke again, but already was enough of an embarrassing mess and didn’t want to push it further. She had attracted enough attention falling on the stairs on the way to the platform, and the last thing she needed this night was a public drunkenness citation.
It was bad enough feeling in tatters and humiliated. Though still stoned, Penny tried to remember what the fuck had happened but had a hard time putting together the segments. Finally, however, she did find Clarice and Gita, and they got totally blasted on ketamine in the pantry backstage with the stage crew and one of the designer assistants they knew.
It was a foolish white trash thing to do, and the most vivid memory from the evening were the hallucinations: Penny saw monochromatic Russian supremacist shapes like Kandinsky and Rodchenko before suddenly she was hallucinating a motorcycle race in a northern Italian town with Team Medici, against the Borgias, like an old Atari game. She thought it was Tron, which she remembered playing as a child. Penny rode hard, fast on a guided rail, all black, and white. The rush was intense—and as now that Penny was coming down and breaking clear, she dreaded what she did while she was that high.
Losing control always frightened her, so she desperately searched her bag for her phone to check her texts. She sent the last one to her mother from 8 p.m., from when she was still in line for the party. There was nothing after mom’s response: “Luv U sweetheart! Knock em dead!” Penny checked her phone messages. She was relieved there were no calls.
With great difficulty, Penny thought about what happened later, realizing that she did leave independently, recalling with Gita but not Clarice. Clarice did something; Penny couldn’t quite remember or define if it was good or bad, and Gita got a cab, but she was going uptown, and Penny was downtown. Satisfied, Penny didn’t do anything to fuck her life up or cause her to lose her job Monday morning. She did, however, accomplish absolutely nothing tonight. Just got fucked up on sleazy psychedelics they give dogs when they chop their balls off.
She went into her bag. Her clutch was in place, though wet and smelled weird. Thankfully, she did not lose her keys and ID card. She realized then she jumped the turnstile to get into the station.
Finally, he checked the time on her iPhone. 4:25. She had been tripping for at least seven hours. What the fuck did I do tonight? She could not remember anything more other than her hallucinations. One hell of a motorcycle ride through Renaissance Italy, she thought. Fuck, she would have to call Gita when she got home; find out if Clarice was all right. If she was okay—what the goddamn fuck, seven fucking hours in a library with hundreds of industry people, including our supervisors, and what the hell did we do or say? Penny dug through her bag again, looking for scraps of paper with strange names and telephone numbers scrawled on them, new business cards—stuff Penny did not have before. She pulled out her sketchbook, flipping through the pages. There was nothing.
She dropped the bag between her legs, pulling them in closer. Penny looked toward the dark tunnel, seeing no train in sight. She opened the sketchbook and pulled a case of pencils from the bag. Penny began drawing a little girl riding astride the sun, above the earth, the mountains, the moon, and the stars. Penny continued to draw, missing trains, ignoring the early morning stares—the pages tearing as she pulled with growing intensity, covering the page with exquisite details, the paper becoming damp, the lead smeared, while she cried unstoppably.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City. His work appears in or is forthcoming in Pigeon Review, The Quarantine Review, Drunk Monkeys, Flash Boulevard and many others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookselling outlets. He was also nominated for Best Microfiction by Ghost Parachute.