Nonfiction by Nina Sharma
Livin, for Amelia
Up, up, up, up the stone steps, past the statue of the studious goddess everyone bothers for a picture. Past a set of smokers at the revolving doors. Past the crowd just at the entrance, all eyes over shoulders, heads swiveling with every turn of the door. Shuffling through the coat check line, moving slow, winter layers pried off, wool, down, polyester spilling on the table like so many guts. “See you in there,” I call out sometimes to folks I know. I pause at check-in table, “Good luck,” the young woman says as I pick up my nametag.
This building is misnamed. It’s called Low Library but the library is just across the “college walk.” And it’s not so much low, but high, a large stone dome set atop all those steps upon steps. Tonight the only books in here are hypothetical. The ones we will pitch. This is the annual literary agent-MFA alumni mixer event.
She’s the first person I see when I enter the event. It had been nearly a year since we’d seen each other last. I take her in. Her straight black hair in a simple side part. Her petite frame decked in a crisp blue chambray dress and a tight brown brown leather jacket hugging her close. I wonder if she’s taking me in too, everything I did as Tina Fey once put it, “to prepare for my role as human woman.” My blow-out “with bounce.” My little cotton black dress, my mom’s gold kara on my wrist, my lucky cowry shell earrings given to me by a former student. She does not wear any jewelry, unadorned save for a black whip of a purse strap hanging off the leather jacket’s shoulder, Indiana Jones-style.
“I snuck in,” she says.
We are in front of a table piled with cheeses, flat breads, olives and grapes. The first of several large tables piled like this.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” she says.
Though I have just entered, it seems as if she has been there for at least a few minutes more. She is facing me, facing the entrance. I thought for a minute she might be leaving.
“Because I haven’t graduated yet.”
In here, all is the reverse of what we have just passed outside. We are studious but mortal, flesh and bone. The room is encased in stone, marble and concrete.
“I just wanted to see what happens next.”
She smiles. And I start to laugh.
Just below her grin her tag dangles, more official than her story claims: Amelia Blanquera, nonfiction.
Her essay unfolds as a series of vignettes. Other lifetimes. Thick New York City summer heat, polyester NYU law school graduation robes, woven Chanel linen. All of it piled atop her as she jumps into the Washington Square fountain. WHITE SPACE Then she’s watching a boxing match in Madison Square Garden. WHITE SPACE Then she’s chatting with the ghost of E.B. White on the subway.
“Livin,” I say to my husband. “This piece should be called ‘Livin.’”
“Livin,” he nods his head.
We are sitting next to each other on the couch as I read her city, her New York.
We keep saying the word, like a toast.
“Livin,” I add, a final comment on her pages. “I think this piece should be called ‘Livin.’”
We don’t talk about this note at workshop or anytime after.
In workshop, she tells us that the essays are part of a series where she plans to celebrate the ordinary. “I was told writers follow their obsessions, the ordinary is my obsession.” But somehow her idea gets lost. Our classmates are more interested in debating if this piece is “New York enough” or not. One girl who, when not abroad, lives very well in a very gentrified part of New York, says it is not.
I try to meet her eyes, Amelia’s. This is all we ever do with one another.
We don’t talk to each other in class so much. I mostly just meet her gaze. She always sits close to our teacher and close to the door. I look towards her, time and again, to share a smile, to share some knowing.
A few hours and some nervous helpings of olives and cheese blocks later we circle back to each other, this time at the food table closest to the back.
“I didn’t realize I was drunk.” I scan the table for anything that could soak it up, the most absorbent of the finger foods.
“The strangest thing happened to me,” she says.
I grab a small bread off of the buffet spread.
“A friend came up to me and asked me how many agents I talked to,” she says.
I grab a few more small breads.
“I told my friend only two,” she says. “And then my friend said to me, that’s because you are Asian.”
Everything on my plate remains except for the breads.
“Of course, this stupid place,” I say.
“And I said to my friend, ‘My book isn’t about me being Asian, it’s about public gardens.’”
She just laughs and I just laugh, our laughs squeezing in somewhere between all the other sounds, all the voices elbowing each other, cracking against that stone and the dome overhead.
“Who is it? I want to give them a piece of my mind.”
But I know she won’t tell me. We just laugh some more. And I eat some more bread until I’m all soaked up and she says, “I’m ready to go.”
The next day, I send her an email while I’m at work. “Hello!” I title it. A close cousin to “Livin.” I ask her how she is today.
I share with her my own experiences of suffering from reduction, what has been termed micro-aggression, but I just want to call it “this stupid place.”
Less than an hour later I get her reply.
“My ‘frenemy’ sent me a nice email this morning, not to apologize but to say she had a nice time running into me and was excited for my writing projects. I have not responded.”
A few more emails and we are settling on dates to meet up. I throw out two.
I wait. A couple weeks. It’s New York. People get busy. Livin.
The news comes as a Facebook message. Natural causes. That’s the announcement. I find out the rest from her, from her writing: a funny piece on getting a mammogram and how much more comfortable a penis-check machine would be. This is as much as I know about her earthly body, the past it carried underneath all that sharp leather and chambray badassery. Natural causes remain a mystery.
I try to piece together as much as I can from the internet. Pictures of her rock climbing. Pictures of her with her public garden crew. A picture of her in a yellow dress. “The one she hung above her bed,” her friend captioned it. Another of her at an English castle at a wedding. “And she just wrote to me: ‘the castle was swanky,’” another friend said. Her piece about her father Googling her boyfriends and keeping a binder of research off his own internet-stalk.
I have a picture too, from a photo roll sent to us from the agent-alumni event. It’s us at the beginning. We look very serious.
“Let’s practice,” I had said.
My purse is open. I am reaching for a card. She is touching my arm and peering straight at me, not even a crack of a smile sneaking in.
I don’t know when between all of this she began to leave: our sneaky photo, that laughable, pitch-perfectly-named “frenemy,” a hang-out plan suspended in Gmail.
I want so much to know. So I do what I do when the trail runs cold. I write.
I start my story in a writing workshop, a stone space more spare than adorned. It’s a community writing workshop on the second floor of a modest brick building. As we free write, we can hear the thud of weights and yells from the exercise bootcamp a floor above. Everyone keeps writing undisturbed. People write not only at the table but sprawl on couches, put on headphones and angle feet up.
A week later, with all of us holding a full draft of this story in hand, the lights begin to flicker. In and out. In and out. In and out.
“That has never happened before,” the teacher says.
I don’t tell the class about Amelia’s flare for the spectral. Her subway rides with E.B. White.
“And we’ve been here for over a year,” a classmate adds.
I don’t say much of anything. Not because I’m a believer or a skeptic. It’s just that I’m not there yet.
This is something we did talk about in our grad school workshop: no matter where you begin, endings are always hard.
Nina Sharma's work has been featured in Banango Street, The Blueshift Journal, Teachers & Writers Magazine, The Asian American Literary Review, Drunken Boat, Certain Circuits Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Reverie: Midwest African American Literature, and Ginosko Literary Journal. Her essay “The Way You Make Me Feel” won first place in the 2016 Blueshift Prizes for writers of color, judged by Jeffrey Renard Allen and appears in The Blueshift Journal’s Brutal Nation feature.