Newly arrived to New York and navigating the seemingly enchanting life I'd chosen, I find myself on 27th street one Thursday night feeling more alien than ever.
In the elevator of a newly developed co-op in New York with too many chandeliers in the lobby, I’m eating a couple Twizzlers and blinking nervously when a vaguely Mediterranean, vaguely not guy in his mid twenties pries the elevator doors open milliseconds before their closing. In his approach, he hasn’t sped up to even a walk-jog. When he’s finally inside, he doesn’t apologize, instead hits the PH button repeatedly even though it’s already lit.
I’m inventing a narrative in my head about his entire life, which starts when he was a young boy who was never taught the rules of social civility by his unavailable parents, so in a way he is the victim. When the doors finally close, he pulls from the back pocket of his nylon trousers (Prada) a crumpled pack of Menthols and a tiny white Bic lighter.
“You can’t smoke in here,” I look around and realize it’s me who’s speaking. We are the only two people here.
“Okay,” he says vacantly, proceeds to light a cigarette.
“Alrighty,” I say and hold my breath.
“You are going to Eli’s?” He asks. I notice a slight accent but I can’t place it.
“I have no idea,” I finally say, gasping for air. “I mean, yes.”
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. I just moved to the city for University. From Long Island. I’m going to Hunter. For journalism.” He stares at me looking bored. “My friend Jordan is upstairs,” I offer. A slight pause as he inspects me. There is nothing I like about him but for some reason I’d like for him to like me.
“Are you Jewish?” He asks.
“Well… no, technically… not,” I manage. I’m thrown off guard because his intonation in asking this question suggests it’s a normal thing to say within 45 seconds of meeting someone.
“Where are you from?” I recover flawlessly, “I noticed your accent.”
“Didn’t think so. Here. New York,” he tells me.
I take his word for it and the elevator doors open into another lobby just like the one downstairs, but miniature. I hear some sort of trap rap booming in the distance and follow the sound until I arrive at a door marked PH. I am so lightheaded from second hand smoking that I hardly realize I’m being followed. As I’m about to ring the bell to the elusive Eli Cohen’s penthouse apartment, the still nameless Prada-wearing Menthol-smoking man-boy pulls a key from his wallet.
“Alon, Eli’s roommate,” he introduces himself.
“Oh…that’s cool, I’m Kalina,” I say, but my voice is absorbed into the loudness that comes spilling out from the apartment, and Alon sees some people inside that he needs to high five.
Eli introduces himself at the door, I offer my hand, and he shakes only my thumb. His skin is fresh looking, with eyes the color of breath mints. He is warmer than Alon, and has a smile that starts slow then spreads upwards to his eyes. He is also shorter than Alon. He is almost desperately short. He asks my name first, then if I am Jewish. This does not strike me as odd on account of the fact that I’ve already met Alon. He asks who I know here and I tell him the truth; hardly anyone.
Inside, the apartment is swimming with people who haven’t been in touch with reality since 2011. I’m learning from eavesdropping that Eli purchased this four bedroom penthouse from Sofia Vergara three weeks ago. He still gets her mail sometimes. One girl leaning over the bar, which seems to be the only finished part of the scarcely furnished space compliments my sneakers, maybe ironically, maybe not.
“Sorry, Jordan, I got lost,” I say, sliding into an empty bar stool beside her (Jordan Blau: my best friend since fourth grade, long brown hair, never in a ponytail, first year at FIT, the only reason I’m at this party). She is wearing some sort of go-to-hell moss colored pants with mint green Yeezy thong sandals and a black hoodie that is somehow both intensely cropped and oversized.
Before I can ask her what the deal is, the skinniest girl I have ever seen in my life staggers over with a girl in a dress that looks like saran wrap and kisses me on the cheek then stares dreamily into my face until I have to clear my throat and nod at her friends.
“This is Pasta,” Jordan says. “She works in W’s fashion closet. AND, she’s a messenger at Doordash.”
“What’s Doordash?” I ask and everyone laughs though I’m not sure why.
“You’re right, these guys are cute,” Pasta says to Jordan, pointing.
“That’s my brother. You’ve forgotten to take off your sunglasses,” Jordan says.
“I haven’t forgotten,” Pasta says delicately.
Jordan explains that her older brother has been hanging around people who work in real estate with Eli, and everything is making more and more sense because I know that Jordan’s family is pretty Jewish, but I still feel like something bigger is happening and more importantly, like everyone here knows something I don’t.
Thirteen bottles of Pedialyte are in various stages of emptiness on the bar. There are solo cups, empty pizza boxes, and half drunk beer cans covering every visible surface, a profusion of cell phones piled on one lonely granite table. Pasta holds me by the shoulder and quietly points out a girl who’s signed with Wilhelmina, another girl who goes to NYU, and one who is both signed with Wilhelmina and goes to NYU, all sitting around a table much too long for the amount of people sitting at it. It must have just been delivered, because the table's legs are still wrapped in plastic. At first, I think the girls are comparing skin care regimes but then I realize they are all on separate phone calls and not talking to each other.
“I’m going to fix myself a drink,” I excuse myself as Jordan mutters something about how we are already sitting at the bar so why would I get up to fix a drink elsewhere. Everyone is into very serious slouching and some people just got back from Holbox.
I am moving toward the kitchen in pursuit of refuge and trying not to emanate a fragrance of fear when someone bumps into me holding two margaritas and spills them all over his wrists. I let out a tiny shriek by accident, it doesn’t even sound like my own voice.
He shrieks back loudly at first and I don’t know how to respond until I realize it’s Eli, at which point he recognizes me from our interaction a few minutes ago and hugs me without letting go for 30 seconds.
“Hey, do I know you from somewhere? You look disturbingly familiar,” he says when he releases me, but he’s still gripping my shoulders firmly.
“I doubt it. I just moved here a few weeks ago.”
"Do you go out? Maybe I’ve seen you at The Jane or something.”
“I’m not really part of that scene.”
“The one where models hang around tables eating ice.”
Confused, he keeps following. “And you’re um not like into this?” He asks, taking a sip from one of the half-empty margaritas he’s holding. “You’ve got like a problem?”
Neither of us say anything until he’s handed an ash tray to stub out a cigarette he just lit. Someone shouts Eli’s name to request another Dr. Pepper in a bottle, not a can, and he smiles sincerely at me, then asks, “Will you wait right here? Don’t move.” He will be right back.
Everywhere there are floor to ceiling glass walls encasing us, and a single Dialogica chair covered in a giant chenille blanket that people are taking turns sitting in. Jordan waves me over but I yell to her that I have been instructed not to move. She yells back that following instructions is what led to the Holocaust, and she has to warn me about something, but I can’t hear what she’s warning me about because Kings of Leon is playing at an earsplitting level. I feel someone touch my shoulder and realize that I hope it’s Eli, which it is.
He introduces me to an endless slew of faces. Everyone I am introduced to looks at me like I am an intern and no one bothers to ask the questions I was under the impression are customary in this setting; where are you from, what do you do, where do you live, and who are you here with?
Like Alon, Eli tells me he is from New York (specifically Midwood), a trend that may require further examination. People cry out in protest of Kings of Leon until it’s replaced by trip hop at a low volume. Eli tells me that the view from the terrace is insane at this hour, and would I like to see it, so I nod like a baby. Upstairs, the noise feels miles away and we can hear each other speak again.
“I can’t believe I haven’t met you before,” Eli says in amazement, pouring some vodka into a styrofoam coffee cup from an oversized bottle sitting on a Crate and Barrel bar cart. The only other furniture in the large expanse of his bedroom is a king sized mattress and a disassembled armoire. Then he says, “Who are you?” very severely.
“I told you, I’m Kalina, and I am not Jewish. I thought that’s all you wanted to know.” There is nowhere to sit so I sit on the floor.
“Baby, I want to know everything.” He sits down next to me, checks out my wrists, “Nice arm veins.”
“I’m anemic,” I tell him.
“Can I offer you an iron supplement?” he asks, getting up.
“Do you have any? You know what, no, nevermind. It’s irrelevant. This is really an alarming party.”
“What’s the matter?” he asks, grabbing a Laffy Taffy from a Costco sized container on the floor without breaking eye contact.
“Jordan’s not acting like herself… hanging around people named Pasta… everyone’s skinny… there’s multiple lobbies … I’m from Long Island - ”
Eli interrupts me to say, “Do you want to see a ConEd bill addressed to Sofia Vergara? And by the way, Pasta’s parents have since conceded it might have been a mistake.”
Ignoring him, I go on, “I’m not like you. I just feel like – Wait, you know Pasta?“
“Hell yeah, we go way back. I’ve known her for two weeks. I had to drive her Jeep home from the Boom Boom Room last weekend because she was so torched.” Eli is touching my thigh.
“I think I … have to find Jordan,” I tell him, squinting.
Downstairs I find Jordan and Pasta still at the bar, and before I can speak Jordan says to me, “I just don't think you understand what you’re getting yourself into,” which takes me by surprise. I stare at her for a moment waiting for more information but no information comes.
“Jordan, what’s going on here? I feel like I’m on Mars.”
“Let’s just say your eminent involvement with Eli, is like, a huge no-no.”
“I suppose you could be more vague, Jordan. But I’m used to it.”
“Does he know you’re a… you-know-what?”
“I lost it months ago and you know that.”
“Jesus Christ, not a virgin. A gentile,” she whispers.
“Oh. Well, yeah. It was the second thing he asked me.”
“It’s the second thing he asks any of us. To separate the ones he intends to take seriously from the ones he intends to sleep with. These guys are Syrian Jews.” She’s annoyed. I am so intimidated by my own incomprehension that all I can do is motion for her to clarify.
“They can’t be in relationships with us. Clearly can’t marry us. But whatever.”
“The rest is fair game,” Pasta interjects.
“Most of them have arranged marriages,” Jordan adds, waving Pasta away. “And I happen to know that Eli is one of them.”
“Well life has some risks,” I mutter, in an attempt to hide my horror.
“You have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Aren’t you Jewish, Jordana Blau?” I’m trying to recover and failing.
“I’m Jewish. Eli is Jewish. Do you see? I guess you don't. I’m not even Jewish enough to date these people. It's like against the law in their community. Or something. So consider how you appear in their eyes for a moment.” Jordan looks like she’s breathing too hard. She actually looks thinner.
“Cool,” I say nervously. “That’s cool. No worries.”
“I don’t even like it here, I know you may find that hard to believe. But there it is,” I lie. I like it here. I don’t like that here doesn’t like me back.
“By now it should go without saying that the ‘terrace’ is a tactic. I would never refer to it this way but it has been referred to as the ‘panty dropper.’”
“By who? How do you know this?” I ask, while at the bar, Pasta (I swear to God) starts making a salad.
“Get a grip. I never reveal my sources. Anyway most of us can guess. My brother told me. Alon told my brother.”
“Jesus. I think I want to go home.” I lock eyes with Jordan, “Do you?”
“No. I love it here.”
“Sit down. Who cares?”
“Not me. But right now, I have to go. Will speak as soon as it’s feasibly possible.”
Armed with the kind of animosity that almost always lowers the social thermometer, I wade back through the crowd and toward the elevator bank, then through a maze of oversized contemporary art and doormen who are offended by my existence until I reach the safety of 27th street.
For the first time since moving to the city, I’m struck with the awareness of my own difference - that maybe our respective pasts can create a palpable and definite partition between people. It’s possible I’ve just moved universes at the hands of an ordinary looking elevator, abruptly and without warning.
Jordan had always been more adaptive than I was, more agreeable - her passibility seemed to make her likable, and for this I envied her. I identified more with any material that refused to do what you wanted it to, whose form was resistant to change. And so I was left now with the uneasy feeling that my own history, or lack thereof - my uninspiring small town upbringing, had somehow made me expendable in these peoples' eyes.
Walking back to my apartment on 66th street, I'm thinking very much and resolving very little. By the time I reach 59th street, I arrive at a thought that almost satisfies me; the past is unchangeable and sometimes you end up at weird parties. There are probably a thousand more alternate universes in New York that have rules I won't be privy to, which, lucky for me, makes changing myself between universes futile. •