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Still Me, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  He squeezed my shoulder. "Yup. You really are."


  I managed to stay awake just long enough to unpack, eat some takeaway with Nathan (he called it takeout, like an actual American), flicked through some of the 859 channels on my little television, the bulk of which seemed to be on an ever-running loop of American football, adverts for digestion issues, or badly lit crime shows I hadn't heard of, and then I zonked out. I woke with a start at four forty-five a.m. For a few discombobulating minutes I was confused by the distant sound of an unfamiliar siren, the low whine of a reversing truck, then flicked on the light switch, remembered where I was, and a jolt of excitement whipped through me.

  I pulled my laptop from my bag and tapped out a chat message to Sam.

  You there? xxx

  I waited, but nothing came back. He had said he was back on duty, and was too befuddled to work out the time difference. I put my laptop down and tried briefly to get back to sleep (Treena said when I didn't sleep enough I looked like a sad horse). But the unfamiliar sounds of the city were a siren call, and at six I climbed out of bed and showered, trying to ignore the rust in the sputtering water that exploded out of the shower head. I dressed (denim pinafore sundress and a vintage turquoise short-sleeved blouse with a picture of the Statue of Liberty) and went in search of coffee.

  I padded along the corridor, trying to remember the location of the staff kitchen that Nathan had shown me the previous evening. I opened a door and a woman turned and stared at me. She was middle-aged and stocky, her hair set in neat dark waves, like a 1930s movie star. Her eyes were beautiful and dark but her mouth dragged down at the edges, as if in permanent disapproval.

  "Um . . . good morning!"

  She kept staring at me.

  "I--I'm Louisa? The new girl? Mrs. Gopnik's . . . assistant?"

  "She is not Mrs. Gopnik." The woman left this statement hanging in the air.

  "You must be . . ." I racked my jet-lagged brain but no name was forthcoming. Oh, come on, I willed myself. "I'm so sorry. My brain is like porridge this morning. Jet lag."

  "My name is Ilaria."

  "Ilaria. Of course, that's it. Sorry." I stuck out my hand. She didn't take it.

  "I know who you are."

  "Um . . . can you show me where Nathan keeps his milk? I just wanted to get a coffee."

  "Nathan doesn't drink milk."

  "Really? He used to."

  "You think I lie to you?"

  "No. That's not what I was s--"

  She stepped to the left and gestured toward a wall cupboard that was half the size of the others and ever so slightly out of reach. "That is yours." Then she opened the fridge door to replace her juice, and I noticed the full two-liter bottle of milk on her shelf. She closed it again and gazed at me implacably. "Mr. Gopnik will be home at six thirty this evening. Dress in uniform to meet him." And she headed off down the corridor, her slippers slapping against the soles of her feet.

  "Lovely to meet you! I'm sure we'll be seeing loads of each other!" I called after her.

  I stared at the fridge for a moment, then decided it probably wasn't too early to go out for milk. After all, this was the city that never slept.


  New York might be awake, but the Lavery was cloaked in a silence so dense it suggested communal doses of zopiclone. I walked along the corridor, closing the front door softly behind me and checking eight times that I had remembered both my purse and my keys. I figured the early hour and the sleeping residents gave me license to look a little more closely at where I had ended up.

  As I tiptoed along, the plush carpet muffling my steps, a dog started to bark from inside one of the doors--a yappy, outraged protest--and an elderly voice shouted something that I couldn't make out. I hurried past, not wanting to be responsible for waking up the other residents, and, instead of taking the main stairs, headed down in the service lift.

  There was nobody in the lobby so I let myself out onto the street and stepped straight into a clamor of noise and light so overwhelming that I had to stand still for a moment just to stay upright. In front of me the green oasis of Central Park extended for what looked like miles. To my left, the side streets were already busy--enormous men in overalls unloaded crates from an open-sided van, watched by a cop with arms like sides of ham crossed over his chest. A road sweeper hummed industriously. A taxi driver chatted to a man through his open window. I counted off the sights of the Big Apple in my head. Horse-drawn carriages! Yellow taxis! Impossibly tall buildings! As I stared, two weary tourists with children in buggies pushed past me clutching Styrofoam coffee cups, still operating perhaps on some distant time zone. Manhattan stretched in every direction, enormous, sun-tipped, teeming and glowing.

  My jet lag evaporated with the last of the dawn. I took a breath and set off, aware that I was grinning but quite unable to stop myself. I walked eight blocks without seeing a single convenience store. I turned into Madison Avenue, past huge glass-fronted luxury stores with their doors locked and, dotted between them, the occasional restaurant, windows darkened like closed eyes, or a gilded hotel whose liveried doorman didn't look at me as I passed.

  I walked another five blocks, realizing gradually that this wasn't the kind of area where you could just nip into the grocer's. I had pictured New York diners on every corner, staffed by brassy waitresses and men with white pork-pie hats, but everything looked huge and glossy and not remotely as if a cheese omelet or a mug of tea might be waiting behind its doors. Most of the people I passed were tourists like me, or fierce, jogging hard-bodies, sleek in Lycra and oblivious between earphones, stepping nimbly around homeless men, who glared from furrowed, lead-stained faces. Finally I stumbled on a large coffee bar, one of a chain, in which half of New York's early risers seemed to have congregated, bent over their phones in booths or feeding preternaturally cheerful toddlers as generic easy-listening music filtered through speakers on the wall.

  I ordered cappuccino and a muffin, which, before I could say anything, the barista sliced in two, heated, then slathered with butter, all the while never breaking his conversation about a baseball game with his colleague.

  I paid, sat down with the muffin, wrapped in foil, and took a bite. It was, even without the clawing jet lag hunger, the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.

  I sat in a window seat staring out at the early-morning Manhattan street for half an hour or so, my mouth alternately filled with claggy, buttery muffin or scalded by hot, strong coffee, giving free rein to my ever-present internal monologue (I am drinking New York coffee in a New York coffeehouse! I am walking along a New York street! Like Meg Ryan! Or Diane Keaton! I am in actual New York!) and, briefly, I understood exactly what Will had been trying to explain to me two years previously: for those few minutes, my mouth full of unfamiliar food, my eyes filled with strange sights, I existed only in the moment. I was fully present, my senses alive, my whole being open to receive the new experiences around me. I was in the only place in the world I could possibly be.

  And then, apropos of apparently nothing, two women at the next table launched into a fist fight, coffee and bits of pastry flying across two tables, baristas leaping to pull them apart. I dusted the crumbs off my dress, closed my bag, and decided it was probably time to return to the peace of the Lavery.


  Ashok was sorting huge bales of newspapers into numbered piles as I walked back in. He straightened up with a smile. "Well, good day, Miss Louisa. And how was your first morning in New York?"

  "Amazing. Thank you."

  "Did you hum 'Let the River Run' as you walked down the street?"

  I stopped in my tracks. "How did you know?"

  "Everyone does that when they first come to Manhattan. Hell, even I do it some mornings and I don't look nothing like Melanie Griffith."

  "Are there no grocery stores around here? I had to walk about a million miles to get a coffee. And I have no idea where to buy milk."

  "Miss Louisa, you should have told me. C'm
ere." He gestured behind his counter and opened a door, beckoning me into a dark office, its scruffiness and cluttered decor at odds with the brass and marble outside. On a desk sat a bank of security screens and among them an old television and a large ledger, along with a mug, some paperback books, and an array of photographs of beaming, toothless children. Behind the door stood an ancient fridge. "Here. Take this. Bring me one later."

  "Do all doormen do this?"

  "No doormen do this. But the Lavery is different."

  "So where do people do their shopping?"

  He pulled a face. "People in this building don't do shopping, Miss Louisa. They don't even think about shopping. I swear half of them think that food arrives by magic, cooked, on their tables." He glanced behind him, lowering his voice. "I will wager that eighty percent of the women in this building have not cooked a meal in five years. Mind you, half the women in this building don't eat meals, period."

  When I stared at him he shrugged. "The rich do not live like you and me, Miss Louisa. And the New York rich . . . well, they do not live like anyone."

  I took the carton of milk.

  "Anything you want you have it delivered. You'll get used to it."

  I wanted to ask him about Ilaria and Mrs. Gopnik, who apparently wasn't Mrs. Gopnik, and the family I was about to meet. But he was looking away from me up the hallway.

  "Well, good morning to you, Mrs. De Witt!"

  "What are all these newspapers doing on the floor? The place looks like a wretched newsstand." A tiny old woman tutted fretfully at the piles of New York Times and Wall Street Journal that he was still unpacking. Despite the hour, she was dressed as if for a wedding, in a raspberry pink duster coat, a red pillbox hat, and huge tortoiseshell sunglasses that obscured her tiny, wrinkled face. At the end of a lead a wheezy pug, with bulbous eyes, gazed at me belligerently (at least I thought it was gazing at me: it was hard to be sure as its eyes veered off in different directions). I stooped to help Ashok clear the newspapers from her path but as I bent down the dog leaped at me with a growl so that I sprang back, almost falling over the New York Times.

  "Oh, for goodness' sake!" came the quavering, imperious voice. "And now you're upsetting the dog!"

  My leg had felt the whisper of the pug's teeth. My skin sang with the near contact.

  "Please make sure this--this debris is cleared by the time we return. I have told Mr. Ovitz again and again that the building is going downhill. And, Ashok, I've left a bag of refuse outside my door. Please move it immediately or the whole corridor will smell of stale lilies. Goodness knows who sends lilies as a gift. Funereal things. Dean Martin!"

  Ashok tipped his cap. "Certainly, Mrs. De Witt." He waited until she'd gone. Then he turned and peered at my leg.

  "That dog tried to bite me!"

  "Yeah. That's Dean Martin. Best stay out of his way. He's the most bad-tempered resident in this building, and that's saying something." He bent back toward his papers, heaving the next lot onto the desk, then pausing to shoo me away. "Don't you worry about these, Miss Louisa. They're heavy and you got enough on your plate with them upstairs. Have a nice day now."

  He was gone before I could ask him what he meant.


  The day passed in a blur. I spent the rest of the morning organizing my little room, cleaning the bathroom, putting up pictures of Sam, my parents, Treena, and Thom to make it feel more like home. Nathan took me to a diner near Columbus Circle where I ate from a plate the size of a car tire and drank so much strong coffee that my hands vibrated as we walked back. Nathan pointed out places that might be useful to me--this bar stayed open late, that food truck did really good falafel, this was a safe ATM for getting cash . . . My brain spun with new images, new information. Sometime mid-afternoon I felt suddenly woozy and leaden-footed, so Nathan walked me back to the apartment, his arm through mine. I was grateful for the quiet, dark interior of the building, for the service lift that saved me from the stairs.

  "Take a nap," he advised, as I kicked off my shoes. "I wouldn't sleep more than an hour, though, or your body clock will be even more messed up."

  "What time did you say the Gopniks will be back?" My voice had started to slur.

  "Usually around six. It's three now so you've got time. Go on, get some shut-eye. You'll feel human again."

  He closed the door and I sank gratefully back on the bed. I was about to sleep, but realized suddenly that if I waited I wouldn't be able to speak to Sam, and reached for my laptop, briefly lifted from my torpor.

  Are you there? I typed into the messenger app.

  A few minutes later, with a little bubbling sound, the picture expanded and there he was, back in the railway carriage, his huge body hunched toward the screen. Sam. Paramedic. Man-mountain. All-too-new-boyfriend. We grinned at each other like loons.

  "Hey, gorgeous! How is it?"

  "Good!" I said. "I could show you my room but I might bump the walls as I turn the screen." I twisted the laptop so that he could see the full glory of my little bedroom.

  "Looks good to me. It's got you in it."

  I stared at the gray window behind him. I could picture it exactly, the rain thrumming on the roof of the railway carriage, the glass that steamed comfortingly, the wood, the damp, and the hens outside sheltering under a dripping wheelbarrow. Sam was gazing at me, and I wiped my eyes, wishing suddenly that I had remembered to put on some makeup.

  "Did you go into work?"

  "Yeah. They reckon I'll be good to start back on full duties in a week. Got to be fit enough to lift a body without busting my stitches." He instinctively placed his hand on his abdomen, where the gunshot had hit him just a matter of weeks previously--the routine callout that had nearly killed him, and cemented our relationship--and I felt something unbalancing and visceral.

  "I wish you were here," I said, before I could stop myself.

  "Me too. But you're on day one of your adventure and it's going to be great. And in a year you will be sitting here--"

  "Not here," I interrupted. "In your finished house."

  "In my finished house," he said. "And we'll be looking at your pictures on your phone and I'll be secretly thinking, Oh, God, there she goes, whanging on about her time in New York again."

  "So will you write to me? A letter full of love and longing, sprayed with lonely tears?"

  "Ah, Lou. You know I'm not really a writer. But I'll call. And I'll be there with you in just four weeks."

  "Right," I said, as my throat constricted. "Okay. I'd better grab a nap."

  "Me too," he said. "I'll think of you."

  "In a disgusting porny way? Or in a romantic Nora Ephron-y kind of way?"

  "Which of those is not going to get me into trouble? You look good, Lou," he said, after a minute. "You look . . . giddy."

  "I feel giddy. I feel like a really, really tired person who also slightly wants to explode. It's a little confusing." I put my hand on the screen, and after a second he put his up to meet it. I could imagine it on my skin.

  "Love you." I still felt a little self-conscious saying it.

  "You too. I'd kiss the screen but I suspect you'd only get a view of my nasal hair."

  I shut my computer, smiling, and within seconds I was asleep.


  Somebody was shrieking in the corridor. I woke groggily, sweatily, half suspecting I was in a dream, and pushed myself upright. There really was a woman screaming on the other side of my door. A thousand thoughts sped through my addled brain, headlines about murders, New York, and how to report a crime. What was the number you were meant to call? Not 999 like England. I racked my brain and came up with nothing.

  "Why should I? Why should I sit there and smile when those witches are insulting me? You don't even hear half of what they say! You are a man! It is like you wear blinkers on your ears!"

  "Darling, please calm down. Please. This is not the time or the place."

  "There is never a time or place! Because there is always someone here! I have to
buy my own apartment just so I have somewhere to argue with you!"

  "I don't understand why you have to get so upset about it all. You have to give it--"


  Something smashed on a hardwood floor. I was fully awake now, my heart racing.

  There was a weighty silence.

  "Now you're going to tell me this was a family heirloom."

  A pause.

  "Well, yes, yes, it was."

  A muffled sob. "I don't care! I don't care! I'm choking in your family history! You hear me? Choking!"

  "Agnes, darling. Not in the corridor. Come on. We can discuss this later."

  I sat very still on the edge of my bed.

  There was more muffled sobbing, then silence. I waited, then stood and tiptoed to the door, pressing my ear against it. Nothing. I looked at the clock--four forty-six p.m.

  I washed my face and changed briskly into my uniform. I brushed my hair, then let myself quietly out of my bedroom and walked around the corner of the corridor.

  And I stopped.

  Farther up the corridor beside the kitchen, a young woman was curled into a fetal ball. An older man had his arms wrapped around her, his back pressed against the wood paneling. He was almost seated, one knee up and one extended, as if he had caught her and been brought down by the weight. I couldn't see her face, but a long, slim leg stuck out inelegantly from a navy dress and a sheet of blond hair obscured her face. Her knuckles were white from where she was holding on to him.

  I stared and gulped, and he looked up and saw me. I recognized Mr. Gopnik.

  "Not now. Thank you," he said, softly.

  My voice sticking in my throat, I backed swiftly into my room and closed the door, my heart thumping in my ears so loudly that I was sure they must be able to hear it.


  I stared, unseeing, at the television for the next hour, an image of those entwined people burned onto the inside of my head. I thought about texting Nathan but I wasn't sure what I would say. Instead, at five fifty-five, I walked out, tentatively making my way toward the main apartment through the connecting door. I passed a vast empty dining room, what looked like a guest bedroom and two closed doors, following the distant murmur of conversation, my feet soft on the parquet floor. Finally I reached the drawing room and stopped just outside the open doorway.