*Image: “One Wall Street – Bank of New York Building” by Ivan Santiago, 2017
Here, There Be Dragons
By Jillian Merrifield
Dana and I are on this party’s shitlist, I can tell, and I’m pretty sure that it’s mostly about me. The host is the building manager of the high rise that Dana works in downtown, and he was so pissed to see that she’d brought an unsolicited male plus-one that the invitation was surely an excuse to get into her pants, which, honestly, was a place in the world that I wouldn’t fight him for—I’d just warn him that the rent is pretty steep.
So we sit at the rooftop bar, ostracized and self-ostracizing, as waiters glide about like children’s remote-controlled yachts, serving champagne, beef tongue tacos, offal, and, thankfully, pork belly skewers, and we bitch about how hipster butchery has just gone too fucking far until we’re blue-lipped from the strain of trying to find clean air in Chicago’s canopy.
“Class has been forgotten,” Dana complains, apparently lamenting the lack of normal food.
I would contend that she’s remembered enough for everybody in the room, with their curated attempts to be post-class. I give her another glass of champagne off a passing tray, and the bartender begins making her a mint julep. He’s been listening. He knows what he’s doing.
Dana leaves the champagne but takes the julep and a coaster from the bartender with a smile. That smile won’t come with a tip. “So, Simon, I was thinking that you could do this thing for me,” she says with her lips barely above the rim of the glass.
“What,” I say. We’re being watched by the jilted property manager, who is chewing on something clearly, disagreeably tough—some of the offal, probably, which looked about as well-cooked as you might expect at a party like this.
“There’s this woman in my building that I’m friends with,” Dana says. “Her name’s Abby. Super shy, very nice.” She swirls the tiny black straw around her drink, and the crushed ice makes a hushing sound. “And I was thinking—and I would totally pay for it—that you could draw her apartment for her. As a gift, from me.”
I don’t say anything.
“I showed her your online store,” she says. She lets go of the straw and takes a quick sip of the julep—it scarcely seems to touch her lips. “She thinks it’s fucking cool how you’ve done all those TV blueprints.”
“Those are different than a real person’s space,” I say. “She’s not a TV character.”
“Isn’t it kind of your job anyway, though? To be in a real person’s space. Or it was your job? You’re not exactly in a position to say no to work.”
With Dana, sometimes rent is pretty steep even just for friendship.
Dana introduces me to Abby in the hallway of their building the following Monday. Abby’s probably ten years older than me, though so pale and smooth that she could also be younger. I judge more from her shape than her skin, though—the softening from angles to curves say forty. The vulnerable pink smile says jailbait. There’s something almost glacial about her appearance—like a slow inevitability.
“So did Dana explain what I have to do? With the measuring and everything?”
“I’m going to hang out for a bit,” Dana says, striding past Abby into her living room. “I can’t stay the whole time, but I’ll definitely stay for a bit.”
This is an odd bit of charity from Dana, although when we’re all inside and she settles on the couch, it’s clear that part of her motive was touching up her fucking nail polish. I find myself resenting her all the more for Abby’s sake.
I ask Abby why she’s interested in architectural plans. Her condo is nicely decorated, contemporary without being minimalist, and lush with plants both real and silk—and yet there’s nothing about the space that shows much talent or imagination for design. I had expected more innovation, I suppose, although nothing Dana told me should have given me that impression, and even the building itself discourages the thought. It’s one of those new high-rises, complacently sleek and glassy from the outside but utterly safe inside, each condo outfitted with vertical blinds and mostly squared corners and the cheapest granite countertops the contractors could lay their hands on. It’s the sort of place where only the most cautious of risk-takers would live, where the risks might even be invisible.
Abby hovers near the arm of the couch, within reach of Dana. “I’m just interested in spaces in general,” she says, and then offers me coffee.
I take tea instead. “Have you thought about style?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Dana says. She doesn’t look up from finessing away small chips in her nail polish. “I’m paying no matter what. It’s a gift. So, please, pick whatever you want.”
“I guess I don’t know what you mean,” Abby says to me.
“Well, I can hand draw it, which will take longer. Or I can do a 3D model, which is quicker, and that could be more detailed and would look cleaner and geometric. I could also make it look like some of the stuff I have online—like vintage blueprints.”
“I want something timeless,” she says. “Something that looks like it exists outside of time, like it’s always been the way it has, and it’s been there forever.”
She is wistful and circuitous, and when she speaks her hands twitch lamely at her sides with unguided energy. I stare. She has more piercings than I’d expect from a woman that Dana says almost never leaves the building. Some glint, like pearls, from deep in the shells of her ears; others shove their way through her lips. Standing in the master bedroom later, with her watching me, I wonder if she did them all herself. I wonder if there are piercings that I can’t see, then wonder what they feel like to touch.
Maybe her husband did them for her—I see men’s shaving cream in the master bathroom, and one of the other bedrooms has a racecar bed and what must be a hundred children’s books.
At the door, when I’m leaving, with Dana long gone and the weight of supervision lifted from her shoulders, Abby leans a little more casually, lets fly the leaves of her cardigan on the breeze of a cranked HVAC system. “I feel like I wasn’t very helpful, in describing what I wanted,” she says.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I think I know enough.” I don’t know anything, really, but I trust myself.
“Maybe hand-drawn,” she says. “Maybe you could use nice paper, and make it look old.”
I tell her I’ll be in touch. I have her number now.
“But don’t spend too much time on it. Really. Dana shouldn’t even be paying for it. She’s kind of overstepping. I guess. I don’t know.”
“Dana does that. Usually when she’s trying to make up for something. But also sometimes when she just really likes you.”
I start to walk away.
“You know, if you’re ever visiting Dana, feel free to stop by,” she calls after me. When I look back, she has her sweater wrapped around her body again. “It doesn’t just have to be about mapping the known world.”
I don’t know why she says it like this in the age of the “you up?” text, and yet also, I do—it’s an invitation to explore the merely guessable worlds. I don’t know why she would choose me for such a task, but I’m happy for it.
Dana harasses me daily about the progress of the project, but to be honest I’m not working on it until I am, physically, and she just needs to deal with that. I have job applications to do too, interviews at three different companies. I need to ride the wave of recolonization sweeping the city and grab a seat in an architecture firm while the Danas of the region are still trying to take back Bronzeville, still trying to bridge the gap between Morgan Street and Austin Boulevard.
I don’t tell Dana, though, that I’m thinking about the project a lot. Thinking about how to make it perfect even as I’m interviewing at a firm in the same building that Dana works in. She’s worked some kind of spatial nepotism magic for me, and they offer me the position before five o’clock the same day.
When I do start working on the plans, it’s in hybridity. Hand drawings on computer-generated 3D renderings and 2D plans, sheets and sheets of them, all with exterior views of some kind or another. A reflected ceiling plan, stark white with the modeled walls hidden, punctuated by the wings of ceiling fans and the circles of can lights, and outside the walls of her apartment, even in her hallway, the constellations that would hang over Chicago at midnight on her birthday (which I looked up on the internet), if only she could see stars around the light pollution. A wireframed 3D view through the balcony doors, through which the outside bleeds and subsumes, turning the carpet to grass and the walls to moss, a post-apocalyptic high rise, riffing on an old Discovery Channel show that I watched as a kid. There’s a floorplan on paper aged with lemon juice in the oven showing poorly sketched wolves running wild in the streets below the balcony and trees like cartoons, all puff and no substance. Through the window of her son’s room, neutered creatures flirt in the air, pastel, declawed nightmares from a Pixar dimension. Only her own master suite is shown in stark realism, divorced from the world, and, in my renderings, devoid of men’s razors.
In the last, the one I’m most proud of, on ARCH E paper with darkened creases, I show the four corners she lives at, the buildings edged in different colors, like the individual countries in the old maps I found online. I label it “The Known World,” and towards the edges I draw dragons, shipwrecks, cliffs, a whirlpool in the intersection.
I think they look fucking fantastic. I don’t think I could do better work.
I text Abby. Almost done. Can I come by some time to drop them off? I’ll bring wine, although I don’t say it. I think she’d like that.
Maybe you should leave them with Dana, she texts back.
I buy frames at IKEA and find that they don’t always fit just right, and they don’t always match the styles just right, but I feel okay about that. They’re just things out of time. I get an advance from my new job to buy them—just a couple hundred dollars, but necessary until Dana pays me, and I know that her checkbook is slow and bouncy even when it’s just reimbursing a friend for liquor.
I drop in on Dana at home with the plans and maps. From what I’ve heard from Dana, there’s no chance of running into Abby accidentally as I walk through the building.
“That’s not what I asked for,” Dana says. She doesn’t let me in, just blocks me at the doorway, to make her displeasure known. She has a humming feeling to her, the way that she gets after a long day in the office. I try to avoid her when she’s like this, under normal circumstances.
“What do you mean.”
“You were supposed to make blueprints of her apartment. Not whatever this stuff is.” She gestures at the drawings like it should be self-explanatory.
“She said she wanted something that existed outside of time,” I say. “That’s what I tried to do.”
“I don’t think she’ll like them,” she says. “You couldn’t just do something simple? Black and white? Modern, to match the apartment?”
“It’s her apartment, not yours.” Dana’s, notably, is almost all black and white, with pops of cobalt. Even her outfit is black and white with pops of cobalt.
“Look, Simon. I didn’t want to say anything, but she’s on disability. I feel bad for her—she should have nice things. I just want her to have some nice things. I don’t think her husband does. But these don’t look like nice things.” She shifts towards me as she talks, assertive, maybe a bit aggressive; her hair comes untucked from behind her ear.
“If she doesn’t like them, I’ll just keep them. You don’t even have to pay me then.”
She gives me a disgusted look. “This is why you haven’t had a job for so long. You can’t give the milk away for free. Even if somebody bitches that it’s too creamy.”
Defeated, I take them home. I go through them all again, thinking, then unframe the four corners plan. I sketch over some of the other buildings, naturalizing; caves and volcanoes and impenetrable forests rise and drop from within their walls. And for her building, northeast, I draw an island, steep steampunk cliffs with a smooth, grassy platform, on which lounges a heavily pierced mermaid. When I’m done, on a separate piece of paper, just for me, I copy her, larger, shade her skin and scales, the real and the imagined, in a meditation, drawing rings and studs that approach but never penetrate ears, navel, nipples, moving the unanchored paper accidentally with the heel of my hand. Her lips are open, but whatever she sings is drowned in the roar below. I can only imagine what slips through them, and how smooth and quick.
Sometime after I give the maps to Abby, I realize I’ve mixed up sirens and mermaids, and that the pierced figure so high above the water on the map surely invited lightning strikes. But I’m not a fucking artist. Just a dabbling architect.
Defiant, I decide I don’t need Dana’s blessing—and anyway, she’s preoccupied with boning the property manager now that she knows he makes bank, which she freely admitted was the big thing holding her back—and I don’t need her there to give Abby the work. I just send Abby a tactful warning. Will be in the neighborhood Friday afternoon. Plan to drop off plans then. Would love to chat with you about them, but if you’re busy I understand.
If she really doesn’t want to see me, she can just stay silent, hiding, as I knock. I may knock a few times, pretending to be confused.
Walking into the building, I ask the doorman to slip an envelope into Dana’s mailbox for me. He asks me what it is. I say it’s a bill, and he seems fucking happy about it.
“What about those?” he says.
I give him Abby’s name, and he says I’m expected and can go on up.
She’s waiting outside her door for me, leaning on the frame, wearing a loose dress and the same cardigan as before. She’s barefoot. I wave as I come down the hall. “Can I come in? I’d love to talk these over with you.”
She nods, though she looks uncomfortable. I wonder if she’s only okay with me when I’m leaving. She goes to the kitchen and makes me tea. I arrange the frames on the floor. When she hands me the mug, I try to touch her finger and fail.
I make an attempt to explain my artistic vision. I tell her I ran with the idea of spaces out of their place in time, that I tried to find different ways to represent her contemporary building. I talk for a long time about the balcony image. I tell her what the stars on the ceiling plan mean, explain the labelled constellations that she would never be able to see in the real world. I avoid talking about the last one for a long time, but it’s the one she kneels in front of all along.
“Do you like them?” I ask, though I’ve realized along the way that I don’t care so much whether she likes them. They can terrify her—they probably do terrify her. But a little fear doesn’t kill a person. I just need her to respect me.
“Yes,” she murmurs, but her eyes are really not looking at all of them. I crouch beside her, and together we look at the churning whirlpool in the intersection outside her building, by the corner entrance. All she would have to do is dive off her own balcony to swirl away into oblivion.
We look until, unsteady, I put my hand on her arm.