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Written for the Great [American] Novel challenge, this piece explores NYC's sandwich of wealth and poverty, power and despair. In the first chapter, Minna makes her way through a Summer Friday.

By Suze KayPublished 4 months ago 12 min read
Top Story - July 2023
Photo by Christian Ladewig on Unsplash

In dry summers like this one, Manhattan is disgusting. Dog piss bakes on tarmac, human shit blooms rank in the dark corners of subway stations. The new grass in every park, pampered by spring rain, is trampled under careless feet and picnic blankets until it’s nothing more than powder. In the country, no rain means fire, or crop loss, or sometimes just the disappointment of a wilting garden. In the city, it’s the death of human civility.

People get mean in the heat, Minna thinks, watching a mother berate her son.

“You stupid ass,” she shouts, not caring who hears. The child, no more than five, stands his ground.

“Man, I don’t gotta listen to you.”

“Excuse me? The fuck you say?”

His response is lost in the wheezy cacophony of L train brakes. Usually, when she sees an argument brewing on a platform Minna tries to stand in the same car as the party in question. She loves watching people lose control, forgetting the general public’s unspoken agreement to bottle rage when others can see. But this scene is sad, so she sidles into the next door and tries to forget she saw it happen, and also that she did nothing.

By Eddi Aguirre on Unsplash

The Goyard weekender bag slung over her shoulder is as much a mark of pride as a burden. On the one hand, it tells everyone else on her commute that she has plans. She has a destination when she clocks out, and wouldn’t they like to know where? It’s a cast-off from Sarah, so it’s more expensive than anything it carries, but she imagines no one else on the train can tell.

Of course, they can. Because it’s heavy as hell, and someone with the kind of money to buy this bag isn’t carrying it over their shoulder for an hour-long commute at dawn. They’re in a black car or working from home, already living in their weekend retreat. The strap digs into the tender flesh of her neck and she can feel a rim of sweat growing in her armpits, a drop sliding down to pool in the small of her back. In the pungent crowd of straphangers, she shuffles the bag to her other shoulder and winces an apology to a man she elbows in the process.

She doesn’t actually feel bad. Why shouldn’t she carry a bag on public transportation? Why shouldn’t she take up space? It’s not like he’s going out of his way to give her any, with his wide stance and occasional stumble in the jerking train. When she gets off at 8th Avenue she has to push past him, lost as he is in his phone.

But it’s all ok, she thinks on her long walk west to the waterfront. In just nine hours she will be in the back seat of her best friend’s car, and in 11 hours she’ll be at the Farm.

By Ulysse Pointcheval on Unsplash

Sarah greets her at the door to the penthouse with a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.

“Are you sure you can’t do this weekend?” she asks in her usual harried fashion, somehow sliding on her black kitten heels (Prada), slinging a gleaming leather purse over her shoulder (Hermès), and applying a silky mauve gloss to her lips (Dior, Juvéderm) all in one move.

“No, I’m sorry. I’ve got plans with friends upstate. That reminds me, I really can’t be out of here late tonight. I’m carpooling at –”

“Bummer. We could’ve used you at the Hamptons house. Ok, I’ll remind Gustav to be a good boy and come home on time tonight. I’ve got that thing.” She breezes through the still-open door, leaving a lingering trail of crushed freesia and eucalyptus in her wake. Minna knows the bottle the scent came from, a hand-blown glass vessel sitting on the vanity in the master bedroom. It’s Le Labo, a brand so luxe she’s never seen it in Sephora. When she looked it up, the price made her mouth water.

Minna ordered a dupe online. It smells divine fresh out of the bottle, but somehow always devolves into the redolence of an Equinox steam room within an hour. Heavy on the Eucalyptus and rimmed with BO. She still has it, tumbled with other perfume samples and expired makeup in a bin under her bathroom sink in Bushwick.

Tucker has a summer cold, so Minna spends the day wiping caked snot from his face and coaxing him through picture books. She draws him into her lap for a cuddle when he gets fussy. He’s fast asleep against her chest now, hot and drooly. She closes her eyes and enters one of her favorite daydreams, the one where he’s her own child. She would have named him Felix, which means happy, which he usually is. An ache grows in her chest and she snaps her eyes open, focusing on the floral arrangement on the coffee table so she doesn’t have to feel so much anymore.

By Jenna Norman on Unsplash

Gustav is late. The group chat is frantic, eager to hit the road before the worst of the traffic, and Sarah watches with numb rage as they decide they won’t wait for her.

sorry babes. someone will pick u up @ station, writes Inch. Alice and Sorrel heart the message.

think Kieran is taking the 5:44! Alice adds. try and link up with him!

Minna asks for Kieran’s number, but the group chat falls silent and she knows they’re together, all piled into Alice’s Mini Cooper, blasting their old college playlists and likely taking a couple of wrong turns on their way up north. She turns her phone upside down on the table. Watching the minutes pass won’t change anything.

She spoons another mouthful of plum mush into Tucker's mouth and he twists away, smearing most of it across his cheek.

"No!" he shrieks. "Myself!"

"Fine.” She hands him the spoon and he promptly flings the glop on the hardwood floor beneath his high chair. "Really, Tucker?" she asks, wiping up his mess with a damp rag. Finally, from her hands and knees, she hears the sound she’s been waiting half an hour for: Gustav’s key in the door.

"I know, I know. I'm the worst," he announces as he enters the kitchen, not sounding particularly bothered. "Last minute call kept me over."

"Yeah, no worries," says Minna, already dashing to the sink to wash the mess off her hands, very worried about catching the 5:44. "I'm just giving Tucker his dinner. Can you take over? I've really got to run." She turns around to find Gustav has already plucked Tucker from his high chair, the toddler squealing in excitement at the sight of his father. Tucker's slimy, purple hands make snail trails across the back of his pristine white button-down.

"Hey, Mr. Mess," Gustav croons. "What's for dinner? Mm, plums? Tasty, tasty." He turns to Minna but doesn't quite make eye contact. "Sarah mention what time she'd be home?"

"She's got the brand dinner tonight. Probably 8ish, if I had to guess.”

“Right, right. Are you joining us at the Hamptons this weekend? There’s space on the chopper.”

“No, thanks. I’ve got plans upstate that I’m already late for.” She means this to sting, but she can't even tell if he's listening to her. He continues pulling faces at Tucker. It's moments like this that remind her precisely how much she's valued in this household: $30 an hour, $40 for an overnight. No benefits, excluding the luxury hand-me-downs that Sarah sometimes passes her way. When Gustav wastes her time, it's just a dollar amount to him. “Can I leave now?"

"Yes, yes! Please! Sorry again." As she leaves the kitchen she hears him chide Tucker about the stains. “Buddy, this shirt was $300. That comes straight out of your trust fund.” Tucker, too young to understand the cost of what he's destroyed, chuckles.

She grabs her weekend bag from the entryway and sprints to the elevator. It's only on the street that Minna notices the snotty streaks Tucker has left on her left breast, and remembers that she was supposed to get her check from Gustav. She checks her phone. If she wants to catch the train, the check will have to wait until Monday.

By Karla Martinez on Unsplash

Minna springs for a cab uptown and messages Kieran on instagram.

Hey! Inch said you were taking the train too. Running a little late - save me a seat?

She gets an auto-populated response: @keen_kieran doesn’t follow you yet. Your message will be sent as a request.

She rolls her eyes. So fucking typical of Kieran, who’s not quite a friend but certainly more than an acquaintance. They met the first Farm weekend he came up, when he and Inch started at Jane Street together. Inch is still there, but Minna thinks that Kieran's moved on to D.E. Shaw or some other boutique hedge fund. He's at the Farm every third weekend or so, but she's never broken through his crust.

She likes to think of Alice and Inch like a solar system. The couple pulls people in and holds them in orbit. The Farmers are inner circle - friends that end up in Rhinebeck most weekends. Minna's one of those, Sorrel too. Kieran's like a comet, coming along every once in a while with a blaze of glory. Or maybe he's Jupiter, with a vast gravitational pull and depths he won't let her understand. Sometimes she wonders if he thinks himself above her.

Because she sees him around the fire with Inch, himself an inscrutable man it took her three years to feel like she knew: comfortable, joking in an alien language filled with finance jargon. She sees him pitch in with Alice's Dad, stocking up coolers or launching the boat into the river. Whenever he leaves to catch an early train, there's a chorus of regret that rounds the table. And Minna can't recall a single conversation she's had with him.

Traffic slows to a crawl four blocks from Grand Central. Quitting-time gridlock of Ubers, buses, and loitering chauffeured cars has clogged the arteries of midtown, and she has no time left to waste. In a pea-soup haze of exhaust and humidity, she dodges motorized delivery bikes and slow herds of tourists amid precarious towers of trash that line every sidewalk.

Without fail, NYC garbagemen go on strike in the deepest heat of the summer. She’s felt the pinch in Bushwick, where a pile of black bags has grown higher and higher in the enclosure in front of her apartment over the last week. She's started to keep her windows closed at night to keep out the smell, despite her faltering wall-mounted AC unit. Each morning she has to chart an increasingly tricky course across her stoop, where the rats have dragged their treasures from torn bags in the night and left them strewn across the stairs like toddlers with their toys.

It’s worse here in the thick of the city. The skyscrapers, packed with people and corporations, cast shadows over vast stacks of collapsed cardboard boxes falling into disarray, and restaurant refuse rots in 50-gallon bags, bulging and bursting over the sidewalk. Sarah and Gustav's building hired a private service to take their trash. Minna can’t find it in her heart to be bothered about yet another rich flex. If she could afford it, she would too.

By Chloé Leblanc on Unsplash

By the time she reaches the station, the train is crammed full. She can’t find a seat, and she’s not going on a wild goose chase for Kieran, so she settles for the least crowded car she can find before the trains pulls away. She leans against a door and watches Harlem turn to highway turn to Hudson.

She forgot how much she likes the Metro North. Before Alice's parents gave her the Mini Cooper, Minna and her friends used to take it regularly up to the Farm. They would watch the sun set over the river and drink lukewarm beers in a four-seater, arriving in Poughkeepsie with a major buzz on. It's easier with the car, but causes more arguments. Turns are missed and tempers flare. No one's drunk and everyone's hungry. Does Sorrel really have to vape the whole way?

After the Ossining stop, she finds an open seat. She watches the sunset fade pink over the far side of the river and Zillows houses for sale in each town she passes through. Most are easy to disregard: too small, too run-down, too remote. Some are exactly what she wants, and with each year that passes, further from her reach. A wraparound porch. An acre of land. Access to water, a short walk from a cute diner. A roomy kitchen filled with copper pans.

At the end of the line, the sky is dark and the air is delicious. Minna stands in the parking lot and breathes deeply, glad the worst of her journey is behind her. Poughkeepsie is still a city, but she can smell summer roses and hear crickets from the bushes that line the train station. She peers around, looking for Alice's turquoise car or her Dad's red pickup.

Her phone buzzes. Alice, finally sharing Kieran's contact.

oh no! just saw this. also, take a cab! we stopped for dins.

Minna drops her bag on the ground and sits beside it. It's been a hell of a day, and it's not over yet. She hates this. She hates when plans fall apart and the world keeps turning, throwing her friends in a restaurant booth without her, setting them all on courses that pull apart and end in different destinations. She's hungry, too. She's sweaty and tired, and for the first time she wonders if maybe she should have just gone to the Hamptons.

"Minna!" a voice calls from behind her. "Why didn't you tell me you were on the train?" Kieran. She puts on a smile and stands, wishing now that she'd thought to change her stained shirt in a bathroom.

"I tried. You don't follow me on Insta." He laughs, pulling his handsome face open to reveal crooked teeth. Odd, these days, to not have them fixed. A statement of some sort, Minna feels.

"Oh, I never use it. Come on, I've got an Uber waiting."

He plunges into the night and Minna follows, wondering if they'll have anything to talk about for the next half hour. It would probably be rude to ask about his teeth.


About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Catch me here for spooky stories, crushable poems, and overall weird thoughts.

Or, let me catch you on my website!

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Comments (9)

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  • Novel Allen4 months ago

    I am struggling with mine, it being NOT an American story. How to make it interesting enough. See, now almost everyone knows of NYC, Manhattan etc, they know what to expect. You nailed it. I lived there for a while. Many writes and rewrites to come. I feel like i lived this story which you wrote, I will learn from it for sure.

  • Paul Stewart4 months ago

    Oh I really like Minna and hate her employers and all the rich shmucks. This was a great first chapter to what would potentially be an awesome novel! Congrats on Top Story, Suze!

  • Naomi Gold4 months ago

    You write these characters I love to hate so well! I had to remind myself this was a work of fiction to calm down, because whew the entitlement! I always appreciate how you give the perfect amount of descriptive details too. It’s a fine balance. Congrats on your Top Story! 🥂

  • Poppy4 months ago

    Congrats on top story!!

  • I have to agree with Ashley...The first handful of words is like dragging us by our hair into the neighborhood

  • Awesome ✨ 🎉😉💯📝Congratulations On Your Top Story🎉

  • Ashley Lima4 months ago

    Your first paragraph is so great. It hooks the reader immediately into a time and place and does a good job of setting up the tone for the remainder of the piece. I like the dichotomy of the class struggle and the urge for materialism (talking about all the luxury items that Sarah has while settling for a dupe of Le Labo). It's relatable, but also frustrating (in a good way). This setup reminds me of the movie Parasite (though not as dark, it seems similar thematically). I'm so interested to read more. Really well done, Suze!

  • Poppy4 months ago

    Yet another amazing piece of writing. You never disappoint!

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