The bag was black, just like Kate’s, and like Kate’s it had a yellow ribbon tied to the handle. But inside were another woman’s belongings. The clothes came in colors she would never wear—bright magenta and electric blue and pastel pink—and in styles she would never wear—a flouncy miniskirt, baby-doll T-shirts with slutty slogans splashed across the front, a pair of sweatpants with the word Pink written across the behind. There was a mesh bag filled with chintzy lingerie—thong underwear and frilly push-up bras and satin tap pants. Kate felt a wave of vertigo as she fingered the woman’s belongings, imagining her own luggage somewhere out there in Los Angeles—her own things in a stranger’s possession.
She tried to imagine the owner of this bag, and envisioned a spray-tanned public-relations major at a local community college. She pictured the girl’s manicured nails rifling through Kate’s belongings, the austere New Yorker shades of black and gray, the styles tailored, androgynous.
She had no one to blame but herself. She had rushed at the baggage carousel, too eager to get out of the airport and back to Steve’s apartment where she could take a bath and be cared for. She’d lunged at the first black bag with a yellow ribbon she saw without checking to be sure that it was really hers before she pulled it off the conveyor belt.
Now, up close, in the light of Steve’s bedroom, she could see that the bags were not even that similar. This bag was quite a bit larger than her own, the fabric on it shinier, paisley patterned. There was no name tag or return address attached to it—only an envelope containing vacation snapshots tucked into a side pocket. Kate flipped through the top few to see a row of girls, mid-twenties, in some garish, vaguely Third World tourist spot—Cancun, maybe Aruba. They stood in a line on a white-sand beach, wearing string bikinis, kicking their legs in a Rockette formation. Another showed them sitting in a bar drinking cocktails out of coconuts, while a Mariachi band—a group of squat brown men in huge sombreros—serenaded them. Kate studied the girls’ faces, wondering which one was the owner of the bag. They all looked nearly identical: drunk sorority girls on spring break—a flurry of pearly pink lipstick and sunburned noses. She tossed the photos down on the bed, wondering how long it would take for the airport to track down her own bag.
She was only in town for three days—the usual weekend visit to Steve before she had to fly back to work on the Sunday red-eye. It was grueling sustaining a long-distance relationship. They were in month six now. They traveled back and forth to see each other every three weeks. She had the sense that they were moving toward that place where they would either choose a coast and move in together, or else break up. She suspected she’d be the one to move. He was a television writer and she wrote for women’s magazines—magazines, that dying beast of an industry. And she was tiring of New York. Ten years and it was beginning to feel like a party where she’d outworn her welcome.
Steve appeared in the doorway now, drying his hands on a dish towel. He was making her salmon and potatoes. He treated her like a queen when she was visiting, trying to make up for the jet lag. She didn’t coddle him nearly as much when he came to visit her. They ate take-out, and he watched sports games while she tried to finish articles against deadlines. She was aware of this discrepancy but felt he didn’t mind. He must have known she wasn’t the coddling type.
“How do you feel about goat cheese in your salad?”
“I feel good about it.”
He nodded and headed back to the kitchen.
She looked down to see she was holding a pair of hot-pink thongs in her lap. She had not had a chance to tell Steve about the luggage mistake. She threw the girl’s underwear back in the bag and stood up, stretched, hearing her back crack. She was beginning to loathe airplane travel. It was getting more and more ghetto every year. The residue of travel seemed to coat her whole body; she imagined a cloud of recycled air and hamburger grease floating around her, wafting off her skin.
She needed a bath. She was desperate for a pair of clean clothes. Gingerly, she picked up a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt out of the bag, smelled them. They had been recently washed. She’d wear them for a few hours, until it was time to track down the girl. She went into Steve’s bathroom and turned on the hot water full blast.
Steve was the perfect boyfriend. She knew she was lucky to have found him—“at the eleventh hour,” as her friend Doug liked to remind her. But the truth was, Kate had always expected to end up with a different sort of man. A black man, to be exact. That had been the goal of her twenties—to find a Buppie husband—a Blair Underwood look-alike with a Ph.D. She’d spent many an afternoon in her twenties sitting in a cubicle imagining the wedding they’d have on Martha’s Vineyard, both she and the groom dressed in all white, jumping over a broom together in a restrained nod to their distant African ancestry, while a hundred faces, their friends and colleagues, the young, gifted, and blackish of the world, a tangle of expensively coiffed, multihued dreadlocks, stood witness to their union.
But the Buppie never showed up.
Doug had been telling her for years she needed to date outside the race. Doug was her best friend and roommate. He was gay, black, Southern. They’d gone to graduate school together. He was now an assistant professor in comparative literature at Baruch College.
“Hate to tell you this,” he told her, “but the black guy you’re describing—in the three-piece linen suit, jumping over the African broom with you—he’s a big old queen.”
“I never said his suit was linen,” she said.
“But it is linen. White Italian linen. And the guy who’s wearing it, he’s flaming. Maybe he hasn’t admitted it yet, but it’s true. I’ve picked that guy up in a bar. His name is something ridiculously WASPy, like Trevor, or Virgil, or Emerson. And he’s got two lives. Two faces. He’s not to be trusted. You don’t want to be that guy’s wife.”
“Yes I do.”
“Come on. Buppies only look good in clothing catalogs, laughing on a beach. Up close, in real life, they’re dry as toast with no butter. And mark my words, they’re prone to deception. They’re always hiding something. So you can never really relax with them. Trust me on this, Carol Anne.”
Carol Anne was Doug’s nickname for Kate. It was the name of the little girl in Poltergeist who gets swallowed into the television set. It had started with him saying to her once, when she’d cried to him about her single status: “Run to the light, Carol Anne.” She hadn’t known what he meant at the time, but he began saying it to her every time she complained about her love life. “Run to the light, Carol Anne.”
She shook her head at Doug. “Just wait and see. He’s out there. And he’s straight.”
And she waited. Five years. Ten years. The Buppie—the way she’d envisioned him—never showed up.
But Steve, a long-legged white guy, did. He picked her up one night in a bar in Chelsea, two blocks from her and Doug’s apartment. They were out drinking together on a Friday night.
“Cute white guy at six o’clock,” Doug said. “He’s staring at you. This might be your moment, Carol Anne.”
“Really?” She didn’t dare look. “What does he look like?”
“Cool, refreshing, like a tall glass of water,” Doug said. “This is your moment. You need to defect, girl. Seriously. You’re getting old. The dew is almost off the rose. You better jump on that or else you’ll end up one of those women.”
“You know. The one we see at cocktail parties. The one with the great body for a forty-four-year-old. Great body because she’s been preserving that body like a jar of cranberries for forty years. Untouched by love. Unstretched by babies. ‘Well-preserved,’ all right. The woman with a 100-year mortgage on a one-bedroom apartment. At night it feels to her like a tomb encasing her—”
He was leaning forward across the table, and his face appeared ominous.
She shook her head. “Come on. I’m thirty-five. No reason to settle, right? No reason to panic.”
Doug sat back and laughed into his drink, a mean laugh, and she wasn’t sure she liked him very much. “Oh Carol Anne, of course there’s reason to panic. There’s always reason to panic.”
He took a sip of his cocktail, eyed the man behind her. “He’s still watching you.”
Kate turned her head to take a peek. She saw how tall he was, how lean, with that mop of dark hair. He was indeed watching her. When their eyes met, he flashed her a funny, crooked smile.
She winced at his smile, as if she’d been slapped, and turned back at Doug. “Ugh. He’s got the fever for the flavor. I bet you his last girlfriend was black, too.”
“So? Wouldn’t you date a black girl if you were a white guy? I mean, come on. He’s trying to find his escape from the Unbearable Whiteness of Being. Who can blame him? Anyway, he’s probably looking to start a family. And white babies are so eighties. Nobody wants one anymore. Why do you think they keep adopting Ethiopians? Oops, here he comes.”
“I see him.”
Having separated from the group of others who looked a lot like him—clean-cut, earnest, rumpled Ivy League graduates—he approached her table, looking slightly stricken.
“Um, listen, I’m Steve. I was going to send you a drink but I thought it would strike you as proprietary male bullshit. So I didn’t do it. But do you want me to? I mean, buy you a drink, that is? Of course, you can buy one for yourself. I mean—”
He stopped, shoved his hands in his pockets. “Jesus. Sorry. I think you’re beautiful.”
She laughed, feeling her face grow warm. “A drink would be nice. Sure, you can buy it for me. That’s fine. I’m drinking Chardonnay.”
He nodded and headed to the bar. Doug chuckled, shook his head. “Oh, that poor boy is gone. Gone! You be nice to him now, you hear me, Carol Anne? Don’t screw it up. This is your ticket.” He sniffed then, pretended to wipe away a tear. “Oh, you’re gonna have some cute babies. I can see it. Little mixed nuts with butterscotch skin and blond Afros. They’re all the rage this year. And you’re gonna get one. For free!”
Then he was gone, sashaying across the bar and out into the night, leaving her all alone with Steve, who was just returning with her drink.
They talked until two in the morning. He told her he lived in Los Angeles but was flirting with moving back east. She said she was flirting with moving west. It was all a code for something else.
“Wait a minute, you’re not like Robert De Niro, are you?” she asked him two hours into it, smiling crookedly, not sure she cared.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you only date black girls? Is it a thing with you?”
He looked startled, confused, and she wished she hadn’t said it.
“God, no. I saw you and I didn’t see a color. I saw a beautiful girl.”
She felt something tightly knotted loosen in her chest.
She went to the restroom at the back of the bar and stared at herself in the dark mirror, wondering what had made him cross the room to hit on her of all the women in the city. She was medium-brown, tall and thin, with small breasts and long sprinter’s legs. She wore her hair natural, a tangle of black fusilli-shaped curls that sprayed out around her face, at once soft and wild. European men approached her on the streets sometimes, with leering, hungry looks. Their glances told her she was a dark berry they wanted to taste. They told her she was exotic. She found ways to turn them down. A drunk guy on the subway platform once told her she looked “just like Whitney Houston” before he threw up onto the tracks.
Back at the table Steve and she talked late into the night. He passed all her tests: He’d even gone to Brown University. (Doug claimed once that Brown had an exponentially high rate of biracial students compared to other universities, a fact she wasn’t sure she believed. He claimed that the school’s unofficial slogan was, “We’re Not Black. We’re Not White. We’re Brown.”)
Steve was everything she associated with Brown. He was postfeminist. Some of his best friends were black. Some of his best friends were gay. He had taken classes with names like “Modern Tribalism” and “Images of Blacks in Film.” He was sensitive to his own white, hetero-normative privilege. And he was rich.
Even so, when they kissed goodnight outside on Seventh Avenue, surrounded by men making out with other men, and when the kiss was as nice a kiss as she’d ever had, natural and sexy, her heart ached with secret grief for the other one who hadn’t so much gotten away as never showed up at all.
She came out of the bathroom naked and stood for a moment staring at the black bag where it sat on Steve’s bed, still splayed open, looking as if it had been ransacked now. She went to it and pulled out the woman’s pink, plastic toiletry bag. It was filled with drugstore beauty products—cheap stuff made by companies she hadn’t heard of since the 1980s. Companies she had not even thought were still alive. Avon and Jean Naté and Bonne Bell. She remembered the names of the products from when she was thirteen. There was a douche box, Summer’s Eve in Island Splash. She didn’t know women still douched.
Kate tried on the push-up bra. It didn’t quite fit. It was both too tight around her rib cage and too large in the cups. She went to Steve’s drawer and pulled out a pair of socks. She smirked as she stuffed the bra cups. She imagined they’d have a laugh when he saw her. She would just wear the clothes for the next few hours, until they figured out how to get her own suitcase back—Steve would go into hero mode and call the airline, drive out to the airport if he had to. And then she’d put them back the way she found them.
She pulled one of the girl’s T-shirts on. It was tight, low-cut, and said across the front: Suits Optional, Flip Flops Mandatory, Abercrombie & Fitch.
Her skin was dry. She slathered on some of the girl’s body lotion. Cucumber and lime scent. Afterward, she put on a pair of the girl’s lace thongs and the sweatpants over them—the ones with the word Pink emblazoned across her bottom.
The smell of dinner filled the apartment now. “Almost ready!” Steve shouted out.
He would be setting the scene now, lighting candles on the balcony, turning on the heat lamp. Music filled the air. Cuban jazz. He played either jazz or soul music when she stayed with him—dusty soul, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, the kind of music that her parents had listened to once, but that had since become the backdrop to Pepsi commercials.
It was a small thing, but it irritated her, the music he played when she was around. She wondered if he listened to it when he was alone, too—or if he switched to Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash when she was away. She’d mentioned it to Doug once.
“Oh, give it a rest, Carol Anne,” Doug said with a wave of his hand. “Steve’s a perfectly good white boy. So what if he plays black theme music when you’re around. You think that’s bad? You should see the games Jeffrey and I play at night, the costumes he makes me wear. Oh, honey. It would turn your hair white.” He flashed a Cheshire grin, daring her to ask. She didn’t.
She felt refreshed after the bath, but she still looked sallow in Steve’s mirror. She went to the woman’s bag and found a small makeup purse. She brought it into Steve’s bathroom and opened the compact of Avon eye shadow. It came in colors she’d always thought too bright for her dark complexion, plum and pink and blue. She swept it across her lids. She lined her eyes in the dark blue pencil. She put on the girl’s lip gloss—a pearly pink—and rubbed some of the girl’s pink blusher on her cheeks. Afterward, she stepped back. She looked like a girl from a 1980s music video.
She went into the kitchen and crept up behind Steve, who stood placing the food on their plates.
“How do I look?” she asked, hands on hips, laughter spilling from her lips.
He turned around and smiled. “Gorgeous, as usual. This is almost done.” He stepped up to her and kissed her lips, slowly.
“Mmm, you smell yummy,” he said, and cupped her bottom in his hand, ground his pelvis into hers. “I want to skip right to dessert.”
She stepped back, out of his reach, so he could see her again.
“Seriously. What do you think?”
“I think you’re amazing,” he said. “There’s a glass of wine behind you. I gave it time to breathe.”
She felt the string of the girl’s thong riding up as she walked toward the glass. The glass was filled with Chardonnay. She took a giant gulp, and glanced back at Steve, to see if he’d noticed the word Pink written across her butt. He was sipping his own glass of wine, and he grinned at her when she turned around.
“Shall we eat, babe?” he asked, picking up the plates to carry them outside to the balcony.
She could see a sliver of ocean in the distance. She picked at her food, desireless. He’d put in such an effort, but she couldn’t taste anything. It tasted like nothing. He chattered across from her about his new television show. It was about zombies from another era—criminal zombies who come back to haunt the streets of New York. She watched his lips move. She heard the music inside the apartment switch to Motown, Diana Ross and The Supremes. “Baby Love.” It was impossible to hear it without imagining the commercial for diapers.
Steve was telling her that the show would be filmed in downtown L.A. “It’s where they always film New York,” he said. “It’s more New York than New York.”
She listened to him talk, staring out over the balcony at the expanse of cars and sky. With a pang, she missed New York—its tightness, its high walls. She and Doug had been sharing the same cramped apartment in Chelsea for years. They’d decorated the place with all sorts of winking artifacts: a Mammy cookie jar beside the stove, a Pee Wee Herman doll over the mantelpiece, a framed still from the movie Imitation of Life showing the tragic mulatto, Sarah Jane, weeping at her mother’s funeral in Harlem. She couldn’t imagine any of that stuff here, in this clean open space with Steve.
The first time she had brought Steve back to her and Doug’s place, he’d moved around the cluttered space, silent, observing the objects and pictures with an expression of slight bewilderment. That evening, they’d had dinner with Doug at their tiny kitchen table, and though everything was pleasant and polite between the three of them, she’d had the sense that she and Doug were only pretending to be nice, earnest people—and that Steve was the only one at the table actually being himself.
She hadn’t been able to sleep that night in her own bed beside Steve. At some point, she had left him there and had gone out to the living room to find Doug sitting alone in the dark, watching a Lifetime for Women movie.
“He doesn’t get our jokes,” she’d said, joining Doug on the couch. “Can I really do this?”
Doug reached out and patted her hand, not taking his eyes off the screen. “Of course you can, Carol Anne. You’re gonna be the envy of all your neighbors. You’re gonna live in a house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms and a gardener named Gomez. You’re gonna be the girl in the Garnet Hill catalog, laughing—you know, that model laugh, with all your teeth showing. All this is going to seem like some sad strange dream you had.”
Now, across from her, Steve was talking about their plans for tomorrow. He wanted to go hiking in some canyon together and then get breakfast at a little place he loved.
She nodded, then excused herself to use the bathroom. As she walked away, she heard him say, “Those sweatpants are so sexy on you. I always love it when you wear them.”
She glanced back at him. “But I’ve never worn these before.”
His smile faded and he blinked at her, then shrugged.
She turned and continued inside to the bedroom.
The bag was still sitting there, like evidence at a crime scene. She went to it and rifled through it. She found the stack of photographs. She’d only looked at the first two before, and now she sat down and flipped through the rest. Girls on the beach again, a row of burning pink bodies. Girls dressed up in evening clothes, standing on a street corner, grinning. Girls with boys. Lots of boys. Muscular, clean-cut boys. Then the other girls disappeared and it was just one of them, a dark-haired girl with a long pointy nose and chapped lips, eyes set slightly far apart. She was sitting on a boy’s lap, wearing the very sweatpants and T-shirt Kate wore now. The guy had his hands over her breasts, cupping them.
The next photos showed the girl lying on a cheap bedspread, a hotel bedspread. She was laughing with her arm slung over her eyes. Then she was on the same bed, but her shirt was off, and she was smiling coyly at the camera. She was wearing the same bra that Kate wore, but her breasts actually filled it. She was pulling down her sweatpants to reveal the edge of the thong underwear. Her eyes looked nervous, but she was smiling a loose-lipped laugh. There was a different boy in this picture, standing at the sidelines, sipping on a Red Bull.
The next shot showed the girl naked, posing on her hands and knees on the bed. She was looking down at the bedspread, hair covering her face. There were two more guys standing nearby, one black, one white, laughing at her. They looked more like military guys, off-duty soldiers. Doug always said that if you saw a black guy and a white guy together, it meant they were either sleeping together or they were serving in the army together. Or both. “Outside of fucking and killing,” Doug had said, “black guys and white guys don’t really like each other. There are no interracial buddies outside of movies.”
The light was tawdry in the next picture. Everything looked cheap, dilapidated, about the hotel room. The girl was looking at the photographer, her features pinched now, her expression frozen in rage and indignation.
Then there were no more pictures. It was back to the beginning of the vacation, the girls in their Rockette formation, bikini-toned bodies glistening on the beach.
Before she got into bed with Steve, she went into the bathroom once more, carrying the girl’s large toiletry bag. She searched through the bag and found the box—Summer’s Eve douche in Island Splash. She had never used one before. She squatted over the toilet and pushed the bottle inside her and squeezed, feeling the cold water rush in and then out of her body. When it was done, she went to the mirror and reapplied her makeup, heavily this time, the blues and pinks and pearly lipstick that the girl kept in the bag.
Steve had a California king-size bed, impossibly huge. You could feel miles apart and still be together. She slid in beside him wearing the girl’s nightgown—something flimsy and pink, polyester.
Steve kissed her glossy lips, then moved down beneath the sheets so that his face was nestled between her legs. “I’ve missed your smell,” she heard him say. “God, I’ve missed the taste of you.”
She pretended to come so that he would stop, then he moved up to her level and pushed inside. She watched his face as he hovered above her. It looked different to her in the half-light, slightly unfamiliar, as if he were a soap-opera actor who had been replaced mid-season by somebody who looked almost the same.
He came in great shudders.
“You’re unbelievable,” he mumbled, before falling into a deep sleep beside her.
She stared out the window at the swaying palm tree silhouettes. She thought about Carol Anne, the child actress—blond, beatific, with giant blue eyes—who had starred in Poltergeist. Kate had read somewhere years ago that the girl had died after filming the last of the trilogy. The girl had apparently been gravely ill while they were filming the movie, but nobody noticed. Something was terribly wrong inside of her that no one could see until it was too late.
The phone rang, jerking her out of her thoughts. Rings sometimes had personalities. This one sounded like a baby, bereft, wailing into the darkness.
Beside her, Steve jerked awake and fumbled around, looking for the phone.
He picked it up. “Hello?”
She could hear a voice on the other end, female, chattering fast into his ear, but it was impossible to make out any words.
Steve was rubbing his eyes, clearly trying to will himself awake, alert. “Wait, start again? Sorry.”
He listened, then looked up at Kate, frowning. “I don’t think so. No. I mean, she hasn’t mentioned any lost bag.”
More chatter from the woman.
Kate sat up and hugged herself, feeling the girl’s satiny nightgown, cold and slippery, against her skin.
“Hold on.” Steve handed the phone to her. “She’s claiming you have her stuff. She got your home number off your bag and Doug told her to call here.”
Kate glanced at the suitcase on the floor, the belongings that were now scattered around in little piles. She’d left the girl’s beauty products spread around the bathroom as if they belonged there. She pictured the Summer’s Eve paraphernalia lying exposed in his wastebasket beside the toilet.
Steve was staring at her, and she thought he was going to say something about how she looked, but he only handed her the phone. “You talk to her.”
Kate slipped out of bed, padded across the carpeting into the living room.
“All right, you have my bag,” a girl’s voice said. “And I have yours.” The connection was weak, a cell phone, and Kate could hear a song playing in the background, crackling classic rock, muted voices in a bar.
Kate swallowed. “Why do you say that?”
The girl let out a harsh laugh. “Um, because our bags have the same fucking yellow ribbon tied to them. Because I’m standing in a bar in Marina del Rey dressed like a dreary old lady. Because your husband, Doug, told me you were gonna be in town all weekend visiting your boyfriend. He gave me the address. I know how to find you. Now come on. I need my shit back. This isn’t funny.”
Kate felt overcome with weariness. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I have your bag. You have mine. How should we do this?”
They agreed to meet in the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. in Marina del Rey at nine o’clock in the morning for the exchange.
Back in the bedroom, Steve had fallen back to sleep. Kate stood over him, staring down at his placid expression for a moment, wondering whom or what he was dreaming about. Then she began to move around, putting the clothes and toiletries back in the girl’s bag. She didn’t bother to make it look the way it had before. She knew it was useless.
The last thing she packed was the girl’s pink satiny nightgown. She took it off and placed it on top of the pile before zipping the whole thing shut.
She slid into bed. The sheets felt cold against her naked skin. Steve’s eyes were still closed, but he moved toward her across the expanse of mattress and let out a contented sigh as he slid an arm around her middle. She lay stiff, alert, under the weight of it.
Beyond the window, she could make out a light in the sky, a faint orange glow. She watched it, waiting.