Her armpits were drenched, and she lifted her elbows a bit to let in cool air, then looked around to make sure that nobody had noticed. Thankfully, she was alone, surrounded only by the rows of life-sized framed magazine covers lining the lobby walls by the elevator. The quiet was soothing and her headache subsided a little. The interview was behind her now.
She replayed the conversation, evaluating her responses. She’d performed well on most of them, except, perhaps, when he—the head of fact-checking—had inquired about her knowledge of nineteenth-century literature. In return, she’d stared at him, shaking her head a little bit, tilting back in her chair. What he could have expected from someone with two philosophy degrees, she didn’t know. The English majors at her university had all been jocks and partiers, and she had therefore avoided everything in that curriculum. Would it cost her a job at the most prestigious magazine in the entire country? Not, she reflected, as much as the fact that her degree was not from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. And there was nothing she could do about that.
Nothing but go back to her apartment in Brooklyn, turn on her steadfastly-dying laptop, play some Philip Glass, make coffee, and peruse Craigslist ads, procrastinating instead of doing the low-brow web journalism assignments that barely paid her rent in a shared apartment. Then she would surf OkCupid for a potentially wealthy, good-looking man between the ages of thirty and forty to have drinks with that weekend. And then check Facebook for status updates from her college friends, none of whom were in New York City, or her grad school friends, all of whom were doing their doctorates now. She could do all of that before her seven o’clock yoga class, and then be prepared to do it all again the next day. And the one after that, too. Because the interview, she felt, had not gone well enough.
As the elevator chimed, she braced herself for the doors opening, and straightened her back, adjusting the leather hobo bag on her shoulder. But no one stepped out. She wondered if the magazine staff ordered in lunch, too busy to leave their desks. She took one last look at the framed prints, which stood nearly as tall as her, and thought briefly about how proud her parents would be just to know that she’d had an interview there. As she stepped toward the elevator, the glass door to her right swung open, and a scruffy-looking man, a salt-and-pepperer with thick-rimmed black eyeglasses, called out, “Hold the door!”
Stepping into the elevator, she cast out a hand so that it would trigger the sensor. The man stepped in and she let her arm fall to her side. She leaned back against the wall of the elevator, and he stood in front of her, facing the front. There was something funny about him. Something that bothered her. But she couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
The machine began to descend and in a flash, she knew. The back of his head suggested to her that, were he to turn around, the front of it would match exactly what she had seen on the bottom left corner of several book jackets that lounged on the mantle in her living room. The glasses she had seen whizzing by began to fit in with the other pieces of the puzzle. She was reconstructing his face without seeing it full-on and was just leaning forward to try to get a glimpse, to confirm, when he turned his head abruptly but slowly to the right, lifted his wrist, which was peeking out from a white cuff that rested beneath a tweed blazer, and glanced at the watch on it. There was no question about it. It was Jonathan Franzen.
She was in an elevator with Jonathan Franzen.
He turned around, and she reared back against the wall, panicked. He probably thought that she was ogling him, creepily. She had been, a bit. She thought he was going to accuse her of this.
Instead he asked, “What’s up with the elevator?”
Her eyeballs moved from him to the elevator buttons, which were blinking on and off, and back to him. “Th-the elevator?” Her voice sounded squeaky.
He sighed. “I have somewhere to be.” He glanced at his watch again. Then, pushing his glasses up on his nose, he bent over at the waist, leaning slightly to the right, toward the button interface. As he did this, he tucked his hands in the pocket of his tweed coat.
The elevator had stopped. She wondered how long ago that had been.
A light blinked behind the number “4” above the elevator doors. “Fourth floor,” she murmured aloud, but to herself. They were on the fourth floor. What floor had the magazine’s office been on? The seventeenth?
Jonathan Franzen was not impressed by her revelation. “Yep,” he replied, as he continued to gaze at the buttons, bent forward. He pressed the “G” button purposefully, a few times, then brought his finger toward the “Emergency Call” button, and hesitated for a minute, as if waiting to see whether the capsule would miraculously jolt to life, before bringing his finger down. As he pushed the button, it emitted a hollow sound, like that of a phone receiver not plugged in.
“Fuck,” he said. He lifted up a bit and turned toward her, seeming to take her in from behind the lenses of his glasses. “This isn’t good.”
Coming to life a bit, she began to take stock of the situation. She was indeed in an elevator with Jonathan Franzen. And the elevator appeared not to be moving, which was interesting and also forced her to begin acting, and by extension, interacting with Jonathan Franzen. The problem was she wasn’t sure what to do. She let out a hopeful “hmmm” as she moved closer to the buttons and looked at them. Jonathan Franzen had his hands on his hips now, and was peering up, above the elevator doors, at the numbers, where the “4” was still shining brightly.
“Fuck,” he repeated.
Shrugging her shoulders a bit, she offered, “Should we call someone?”
“Hm, yeah, I guess so,” he said, and pulled a BlackBerry out of his pocket.
As he fumbled with unlocking the device, she ventured what she hoped might be a friendly sort of laugh, which came out, she thought, the way a twenty-year-old might giggle in a sitcom. “I’m sure it will move in a minute,” she said, confidently.
She waited for him to concur, but Jonathan Franzen was frowning at the machine in his hand. “I don’t have service,” he said. The Midwestern pronunciation of his “don’t” struck her. He sounded mildly annoyed. How long had they been in the elevator so far? Three minutes? Ten? She was having trouble staying on top of reality. Whether it was because of The Interview, or the presence of Jonathan Franzen, or the knowledge that outside of this elevator the world would offer her only the Internet, Philip Glass, and yoga—she couldn’t say.
It dawned on her that Jonathan Franzen was looking at her, waiting for her to pull out her own device. She began shuffling through the things in her bag—lip balm, a wallet overstuffed with business cards, an aluminum water bottle that she had emptied on the subway ride from Brooklyn an hour ago, and an issue—no, two issues—of the magazine produced in the office she had recently sat down in to interview for a job. Finally, she found, and retrieved her phone. There was a signal.
Turning her attention again to the console, she located the “In Case of Emergencies” 1-800 number and called it. A woman picked up and dutifully said, “Bryce Securities, how may I help you.”
“Hello,” she said into the phone, stealing a glance at Jonathan Franzen, who stood facing the buttons with one hand outstretched, as if not sure whether the application of his finger to them might cause an explosion.
“I’m in the elevator with one other person,” she said. One other person! As if Jonathan Franzen were just one other person! “And we were on our way down and it just stopped going. We’re pressing the buttons and nothing is working.”
The woman on the other end asked some questions—how long had it been, which floor—and then said to hold tight, a person would be sent over from within the building right away. The problem would be fixed in no time.
This information was relayed to Jonathan Franzen in a confident tone. No big deal! The elevator will be moving shortly, and then I’ll go back to my apartment in Brooklyn, and you’ll go off to meet with your agent, or whatever . . .
“Where were you headed?” she asked in what she imagined was a casual voice. “You said you had somewhere to be.” A late lunch with your girlfriend, she figured. A coffee with another writer. Maybe Gary Shteyngart, she imagined. No, too young. Jonathan Lethem?
Jonathan Franzen swung his body around so that he was fully facing her for the first time. He glanced at her, and then turned his attention downward toward his phone, which he was tinkering with hopefully, as if expecting it to suddenly start working. She felt naked standing there, unattached to any wall, in front of him. A hand reached toward her bag, fiddling with the strap.
“Publishers’ office,” he explained. “Book cover review. We’re on deadline.” He nodded at her and offered, “I’m a novelist,” in the way that famous people describe themselves when they simultaneously think that everyone should know who they are, but accept that actually, a lot of people don’t.
“I know!” she squeaked. “Yeah, of course. I recognized you!” She watched a mixture of emotions—relief, perhaps anxiety—flood his face. She ventured more information. “I’m a writer, too, actually.”
He perked up a little, which meant that his shoulders lifted a half-inch, and his eyes moved to take her in a bit more carefully, this time above the upper rim of his glasses, without his head lifting from the position it was in, angled toward her feet, so that his brow crinkled as he strained his vision.
“Oh, really,” he asked, interestedly. “What do you write?”
“Nonfiction, mostly,” she told him. “Some poetry, a short story here and there.”
“Hm,” he said, “nonfiction. Like journalism?”
She nodded. “Mmm hmm. I write for websites, yeah, I do short articles, yeah.” Then she realized how little she wanted to talk about what she did—the 1000-word web-audience-friendly articles she scrapped together, on Groupons and cheap city-living, or “innovative” approaches to bringing water to poor villages in India, or how to use Twitter to publicize a start-up business. But he was looking at her now, with greater interest, which confused her.
He was asking her if she wrote for the magazine whose office they had just left. And she realized: he would believe her if she said yes. The possibility of lying to Jonathan Franzen appeared like a shiny apple in the Garden of Eden, but she resisted. Actually, she didn’t even have the confidence to fake it—to pretend like she was just on a coffee run, and would soon be returning to the office to blog for the most prestigious magazine in the country.
“Heh. No, not for . . . I was just interviewing for a job there,” she explained.
“Which job,” asked Jonathan Franzen.
“Fact-checker,” she said.
He conferred with his watch again. “Damn. How long did they say the maintenance guy would take?”
She scrambled for her phone. “I’ll call again.”
While she dialed, Jonathan Franzen began to hum, kind of, and tap the banister that ran along the wall behind him. He seemed really into it, was tapping enthusiastically. A different attendant came on the phone, and the problem of the detained elevator was explained once more. An assurance was re-issued that a maintenance person was being located and would solve the problem shortly.
As she was replacing the phone in her bag, she suddenly felt apologetic for her presence in the elevator with Jonathan Franzen. He doesn’t want to be here with me, she told herself. I’m just another fan of his novels, and he has business to take care of, and a girlfriend at home, and he doesn’t care that I’m a writer.
But then he asked, “How’d it go? The interview?”
She took in the question for a few seconds, thinking about it now more calmly than she had been a few minutes ago, in the lobby. The interviewer had asked her about the kinds of books she liked to read, and she’d listed a number of contemporary fiction authors—including, ironically, the one with whom she was now standing in a stopped elevator—and writers of New Journalism. He’d inquired about her educational background, and she’d gone on about critical theory and her thesis on Heidegger. He’d asked why she’d gone into journalism, and she’d given her standard answer of wanting to be a part of broader public discourse. A generally strong performance, she thought. Except for that question about nineteenth-century literature. What was that? She shrugged at Jonathan Franzen. “Not bad, I think.”
Then it occurred to her that he, too, had been doing something in the office of the magazine. “What were you doing there?” she asked him lightly.
“Meeting,” he quipped, “with the editor. Chat about stuff.” He looked at his watch again and muttered, “Damn, this is taking a long time.”
Exuding a long sigh, she leaned back against the wall of the elevator facing Jonathan Franzen, letting her head rest on its surface, and closed her eyes. “They’re not gonna hire me, I think,” she said into the unseen space where Jonathan Franzen stood.
“Oh, no? Why’s that.”
“Well,” she said, “It’s just my feeling. I mean, I only got the interview because I approached one of their staff writers at a panel at my neighborhood bookstore and asked for his e-mail. He forwarded my e-mail to the fact-checking guy, and he offered to meet with me. I don’t even think they’re hiring any checkers right now.”
He shrugged, warmly. “It’s good that you got the interview, though,” he offered. Jonathan Franzen sounded like he genuinely believed that she should feel glad that she’d had an interview there.
They were quiet for a minute.
“Maintenance should be here soon, I hope!” she said, loudly, still leaning her head back, eyes closed.
“I hope,” he echoed.
Then a voice came from above, a gruff one, colored with the edginess of old-school Brooklyn. “Hey, down theah,” it sang.
Both Jonathan Franzen and she thrust their heads upward toward the voice, which seemed to descend on them, God-like, from the heavens. It really came from the fourth floor—which, it seemed, they were just below—and told them that a cable was acting up, and that the speaker was about to embark on a mission to find out why it was doing so. They were told, again, to hold tight. It would be, they were told, a little while.
Jonathan Franzen sighed, and looked really, really annoyed. As she searched for something useful to say, he slumped to the ground, his legs open and his knees bent, his forearms leaning on them, and his head on his arms. He grunted, or growled, or both. Then he said, “Fuck. I need a cigarette.”
She sat, too. “I quit recently,” she told Jonathan Franzen.
He didn’t look up, but once again grunted, this time in an interested sort of way. “Yeah,” he mumbled into his blazer, “I’ve done that, too.” He raised his head for a moment, thinking. “Multiple times,” he added, before burying his head again.
Taking her hobo bag from around her shoulder, she relaxed into a more comfortable position, with her legs stretched out in front of her and her feet crossed at the ankles. Her heels, however—vintage Mark Jacobs pumps she had picked up for thirty bucks in Williamsburg last fall—were not comfortable. They came off, and she rubbed her feet.
“Yoga helps,” she said.
He lifted his head, eyebrows raised, and examined her over his glasses as if she’d spoken in Bulgarian. “What,” he snapped.
“With smoking,” she clarified. “When I finally quit smoking, for good, I started doing a lot of yoga. Every day, or even twice a day. I completely forgot about cigarettes.”
He nodded a bit and murmured, “Yeah, maybe I should try yoga.”
She was thinking now, of the time when she had quit smoking. It had been strikingly easy to do. “Ah,” she remembered, “it was also easy because my boyfriend had broken up with me. And he was a smoker. So, for some reason, when he dumped me, I didn’t want cigarettes any more. ‘Cause we had always smoked together.”
Her face flushed a little—am I really talking to Jonathan Franzen about my ex-boyfriend? But when she glanced at him, he was sitting up a bit, thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” he said. “That makes sense. My girlfriend smokes, and so, like, whenever she has a cigarette, I light up, too, and we sit there smoking.” He nodded. “I know what you mean.”
He chuckled a bit—”chuckled,” she thought, was the perfect word for the sound; it was a manly, controlled kind of laugh—and added, “But yeah, I guess it would be easier to quit if I weren’t living with a smoker.” He paused, then asked, “What kind of yoga do you—”
A clattering sound came from above, followed by the thumping of work boots along the roof of the elevator.
“How you kids doin’ down theah?” called out the maintenance guy.
Jonathan Franzen looked at her and she looked back at him. “We’re okay, can you see what’s going on,” she hollered upward.
There was more scuffling, but no reply at first. “Checkin’ it out,” spoke the maintenance guy— their prospective liberator from the stuck elevator—a minute later. Scuffling, stamping, and grunts pursued above while Jonathan Franzen sat and looked upward, and she looked at him.
I’m stuck in an elevator with Jonathan Franzen, she thought to herself, rather needlessly. But it felt good to let the thought pass through her head. It was a thought straight out of a fantasy—possibly a fantasy that she had had before, even, not with him but with some other man, perhaps. Had she had any fantasies about Jonathan Franzen? She tried to recall them, but it seemed that they had always been prevented by the fact that he was at least twenty years older than her. She liked older men, but she had limits.
But now she looked at him, and wondered about it. She wondered what kind of a fantasy she might like to construct for herself and Jonathan Franzen.
Oh, Jonathan, your novels are such insightful portrayals of human desire in a hyper-capitalist society, where even our dearest relationships are infused with technologically-induced impulses to consume!
Jonathan, the way you portray females in your novel really lets me see inside the masculine psyche. It’s like every time one of your characters penetrates a woman, you’re penetrating me!
She giggled, and snorted a bit, which startled Jonathan Franzen slightly and embarrassed her. Her ex-boyfriend had found it fantastically cute when she snorted while laughing. She was trying to think of an explanation for her sudden outburst when, from above, the maintenance guy yelled down.
“Hey, so, this cable’s kinda wonky—could be a quick fix, could be something biggah,” he said. The maintenance guy got on his walkie-talkie and spoke at a volume they could not hear down below, in the halted vessel.
Jonathan Franzen was still looking at her, she realized.
“The last time I was stuck in an elevator,” he began telling her, “was in Harlem, fifteen years ago. I lived in a really shitty building, with one of those early-twentieth century elevators, where you push the door open. And one time,” he said toward the ceiling, as he tilted his head and rested it against the wall, “I went in there, by myself, and I was really pissed-off about something. And I pulled the gate shut, and I heard something break off, and then the elevator went down to the ground floor but the gate wouldn’t open. I had broken something off inside the lock. It took four hours for the super to come and wrench it open.”
“Wow,” she said. “Four hours.”
He laughed. “Yeah. The whole time I was sitting there, trying to pry it open, and people were walking by me, and they would look and see me struggling, and laugh and just take the stairs. One or two people stopped and tried to help, but without tools you couldn’t get the broken piece out.”
Overhead, another pair of boots seemed to have joined those of their reassuring maintenance man. The two boot-wearers were in discussion, and there was some clanging. She felt very calm now; she had become used to the situation, to Jonathan Franzen’s presence. She wanted to go sit next to him, feel her ribs leaning into his torso—which wasn’t, by any measure, a particularly masculine, strong torso, but nevertheless seemed to promise comfort. She wanted to lay her head on his shoulder.
“What did you think about,” she asked him, “in that elevator, for four hours?”
He took a deep breath in and let it out, slowly. “What did I think about. Well, at that point I was writing my third novel, and my father had just become really ill. So, I was thinking a lot about home, about my family, about the Midwest. Where are you from?” he asked her.
She explained which East Coast suburb she hailed from. “But New York is definitely my home,” she said. “I feel comfortable here. Like I’ve lived here my whole life.”
“But the city’s always changing,” said Jonathan Franzen.
“And yet, it stays the same,” she replied.
They sat for a minute, breathing, listening to the clanking overhead. It sounded like progress. Jonathan Franzen suddenly got an itch on his lower back, and he bent forward, thrusting an arm awkwardly behind him to reach it. She looked at her phone and considered checking her e-mail, then decided against it.
“It’s boring sometimes,” she said.
He had located the itch and was giving it plenty of attention, scratching generously. “Sitting in this elevator?”
“No,” she replied. “The city. Because it feels so much like home. Everything is so predictable, I don’t even need to leave my apartment. I know what the parties will be like and what people will say about them. I know that the new exhibit at the MoMa will be breathtaking and that I won’t be able to enjoy it because it will be too crowded. I know that the subway will be a disaster at 9 a.m. and I’ll arrive to my meeting sweaty from being packed in with so many people. There’s never anything that I don’t already know, an experience I can’t determine before I’ve gone through it.”
Jonathan Franzen stopped itching and lowered his arm back to his side. “You’re jaded,” he said.
She nodded. “I don’t have anything to write about, because all of the stories have already been told,” she said. “I know how they end before they’ve even begun.”
She was stuck in New York City the way the elevator was stalled inside the building, but she didn’t have a destination—a ground floor. She didn’t have another home to think about going back to, because this was the only place she had ever felt at home.
From above, came a voice—the voice of hope, would it be? “Hey!” it yelled down. “Try those buttons now!”
Jonathan Franzen leapt to his feet with agility and approached the button interface. Though the buttons were still unlit, he nevertheless displayed faith in their ability to function reliably. But just as before, there was dead air behind the pushed buttons.
“Nothing!” he yelled, and a short growl followed the words out from his throat.
Up above, it was silent for a minute, and then the voices resumed their conversation, but no information was imparted to the lower residents of the elevator shaft. Jonathan Franzen began pacing in the elevator, and she remained seated, but crossed her legs and began squeezing them together, lightly. She remembered the coffee she had drank at home that morning, and the twelve ounces of water she had downed on the subway. How long had they been in there?
“How long have we been in here?” asked Jonathan Franzen. He was holding his BlackBerry like it was a dead rodent, in between his thumb and forefinger; apparently it still did not have service.
She checked to see when she had first placed the call for help. “About forty-five minutes,” she said.
“Any news up there?” yelled Jonathan Franzen toward the ceiling. But there was only more clanking, and then the boots moved around for a minute before their sound abruptly disappeared. The men had climbed out of the elevator shaft. Both of the elevator’s inhabitants sighed. Jonathan Franzen continued pacing, and she watched him for a minute, but to her surprise, it wasn’t really that interesting. It was Jonathan Franzen, but it was also just a regular guy, a middle-aged guy, walking back-and-forth in an elevator. Her muscles were tense from the anticipation leading up to the interview, and she instinctively began doing yoga on the floor, not minding that her tights were getting dirty, or that she was wearing a skirt. She arched her back in cat, made it concave in cow; cat again, then cow. She grew warm and removed her blazer, revealing an office-friendly tank top, made of some silk blend, of a pink-ish shade, which only partially masked the tattoos alongside the back of her left shoulder, which was facing Jonathan Franzen. She liked that Jonathan Franzen could see her tattoos right then.
After cat and cow she began doing twists, casting one arm in the air and then squishing it under her body, on her knees with her butt lifted. She made murmuring sounds as tension was released in each posture.
“So, you do that every day?” he asked her.
She murmured in assent.
He resumed his seated posture, and was quiet for a minute, watching her. She moved into downward dog, conscious of his gaze.
“You know,” he said, “the thing I don’t like about yoga . . . the thing I don’t like about yoga is that it’s so individualistic. It’s like, let me be at peace within myself, so I can ignore how fucked-up everything else is around me, so I don’t have to try to do anything about it. It’s like . . . ” He paused. She lifted one leg behind her and brought it forward, into a lunge. “It’s kind of like smoking, maybe!” Jonathan Franzen laughed, a sort of dry cackle.
“Smoking,” she half-asked, half-said, lifting up into first warrior.
“Yeah, you know,” he said, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of the breast pocket of his blazer—Marlboro Reds, she noted, mildly impressed. He held them up a bit, and looked at them. “When you’re pissed off or unhappy about something, you just go have a smoke, and kind of ponder it, or let it pass. So, it’s kind of like yoga because you just tune out a bit instead of actually addressing the problem.”
“Hm,” she said. “I don’t agree.”
“Oh, no?” he asked.
Before she answered, she moved through a vinyasa, coming into her downward dog, from which she told Jonathan Franzen that he didn’t seem to understand yoga very well, that it was actually about focusing on how external problems manifest themselves within an individual in the form of physical or emotional distress, and how by moving through the asanas, and letting go of the stories we tell ourselves, every day, about our problems, we could become, sort of . . .
“Stronger, internally,” she said, looking at him through a triangle of space between her arm and her torso. “Not like smoking. Smoking makes you weaker.”
Smoking, she told Jonathan Franzen, had been her way of tuning out with her ex-boyfriend, of being with him but not really dealing with the problems they had when they were together. Like how she could never be angry at him—couldn’t even experience the sensation of anger—even though he disrespected her and let her down all the time.
“So, he made you angry, but you never actually felt it,” said Jonathan Franzen.
It was still silent overhead. The only sounds besides their voices were her rhythmic breathing and the thump of her feet landing in yoga poses, and Jonathan Franzen tapping the box of cigarettes on the railing above his head.
She looked at Jonathan Franzen, who sat there helplessly, wanting a cigarette, wishing his BlackBerry worked so he could call his publisher and explain why he was late.
“Why don’t you light one of those things?” she asked.
A few minutes later, they were sitting side-by-side, sharing a Marlboro Red. She immediately felt buzzed. The cigarette felt kind of good, except that it made her want to pee a little more urgently. She tried not to think about it.
“So, you’ve never tried yoga?”
Jonathan Franzen shook his head.
She was surprised to hear herself offering to show him a few poses, and even more surprised when he was willing to try it. Jonathan Franzen had terrible posture, shaped by years of sitting at a desk, hunched over a laptop with perseverance, reaching only for a cup of coffee or an ashtray.
“Flatten your back,” she told him. She showed him how. The floor of the elevator was actually very good for doing yoga; it had nice traction.
She had gotten him to take off his tweed blazer and was just showing him the basic elements of a sun salutation, when the elevator jolted, slightly, and a light began to blink on-and-off behind the buttons on the console. They froze, arms in the air, facing each other, their eyes lifted toward the ceiling, waiting for the Brooklynite voice of their maintenance guy, or more movement, or something. They waited, and nothing came, so they relaxed the posture.
Jonathan Franzen immediately got frustrated. “What is taking so long?” he snapped. “This is not some Harlem tenement, this is the Condé Nast building in Times fucking Square. Call again,” he said to her, his hands on his hips.
She did, and spoke with the same attendant who had answered the previous time, for about one minute, and when she hung up she told Jonathan Franzen what she had learned. “There’s a frazzled connection on one of the cables, and they replaced it, and it should have started working, but it didn’t, so they had to go play with some of the fuses, but there’s a ton of them so it takes a while to figure out which one might have gone out. I told her that it just jolted and the lights had come on, and she said that that was probably a good sign, and I told her that she should tell the maintenance guy so that he knows,” she added, impressed at her delivery of the news, hoping that Jonathan Franzen, too, was impressed.
He nodded, and looked pleased. He did not, however, seem ready to go back into mountain pose. Instead, he began pacing again, muttering softly toward the ceiling, with his head bent backward a bit and his hands on his hips.
She put her shoes back on and held court in a corner of the elevator, watching him pace. Her thoughts turned again to the interview, which she had to thank—if for nothing else—for getting her here, into this elevator, with Jonathan Franzen. If it produced nothing new in her life, she now had this great story to tell. What, she wondered, would she post as her Facebook status update after this? Of course, she knew, Jonathan Franzen would seriously mock this proclivity to publicly announce such a personal experience to people who were hardly her friends, people she had possibly only met once, at some dinner party, or when she was traveling abroad. But still, she couldn’t help thinking about a good Facebook status update. “Was stuck in a fucking elevator with Jonathan Franzen for two hours today. Only in New York City.” That was okay, but not very witty; what about, “Guess which ‘acclaimed literary novelist’ I wound up in a stuck elevator with today? Hints: thick-rimmed eyeglasses, Midwestern.” No, Jonathan Franzen was right: the desire to broadcast an experience which was so undeniably hers, and only hers, was a perverse one; it came from a desire to extract social capital from even the least intimate of her acquaintances, from a desire to be liked as one can only be “Liked” on Facebook, with the click of a mouse. It came from a desire to show off to her friends from college who were living in Texas, in Portland, who had great jobs and no student debt but who would also never have the opportunity to be stuck, in a fucking elevator, with fucking Jonathan Franzen.
As she considered these things, and as Jonathan Franzen continued to pace, now dancing a little to some soundtrack inside his head to keep himself calm, something stirred inside her; a little shift was taking place. Mothballs of guilt, stored up in her since childhood, about who she was supposed to be and why she hadn’t become that, cleared a bit; inside these storehouses of self-loathing, random objects that had been lying still for years began to tremble and bump up against each other; layers of injured pride seemed to melt, as if heat were being applied to them until they dripped away like hot wax into nothingness.
Then she said to Jonathan Franzen, “You have an interesting way of portraying women, in your novels.” He paused in his choreography and looked at her, eyebrows raised, expectantly. It was nothing he hadn’t heard before, she knew, but she didn’t care about that. She had not said these things before. She had not said these things to Jonathan Franzen before.
“It’s like there are two kinds of femininity in a Franzen novel,” she continued. She lowered down onto her haunches, arms outstretched to keep her balanced, a position she found comforting to think in. “There’s the needy, manipulative type, who wields her good looks like a weapon. Those women, in your novels, are always the ones men want. They’re the beauties who want nothing more than to be mothers, and to be loved by the men in their lives, even if they don’t really love them back.” She had never really thought this through before, this theory of two femininities, but now that she was saying it, she liked it. Who cared if she was just some random writer in Brooklyn? She could say whatever she wanted to Jonathan Franzen, about his writing, or anything else.
“And then there’s the intellectual women,” she said, smiling up at him. “Who can’t get men to stay with them. Who never have any money. Who live in New York City, and they’re single, or they’re so independent and self-sufficient that they could only be lesbians.” At this, Jonathan Franzen laughed.
“Well, I guess nobody’s ever put it that way before,” he said. “But everybody likes to interpret fiction in their own way. It’s the reader’s right to do that.”
She was onto something, she felt. “And marriage, your obsession with marriage in your novels.” She stood up, propped her elbows up on the bar that ran alongside the wall behind her, and, facing him, asked, “Do you feel that writing novels is just your way of figuring out all the relationships in your life? Siblings, relationships, your parents. Women.”
“Well!” he barked, “Of course!” Then his mouth hung open for a minute, preparing to divulge some literary musings to this young writer with whom he was stuck in an elevator. “That’s what fiction writers do. We’re writing about people we know, combining their attributes to create new characters, situations we’ve been in, disguised slightly or made more universal somehow so that readers can connect to them.”
“It’s such a privilege,” she said, “to be able to write about relationships. About actual human feelings. About life!” She threw up her hands. “Instead of what I do. This crap! This stuff we put on the Web, so we can fill our time, staring at words. About things that have nothing to do with us!”
The elevator jolted again. It was a significant one this time, and it threw them both off-balance. Jonathan Franzen’s knees buckled and he leapt forward; she bounced off the wall and directly into him. Her elbow went into his hip, and his shoulder came down on her head. She ended up on her tailbone, on the floor, and he moved to a corner, grasping at the rails.
“Ow!” he yelled. “Ow, fuck!”
She laughed, and wheezed, sounding a little like a crazy person, she thought. “Ugh, that hurt me, too,” she told him, “my head is throbbing.” She rubbed it, and her lower back, too.
He sighed and apologized; she told him it was okay. She sat, and he stood, and they rubbed their wounds.
Again, the box jolted.
The lights came on behind the buttons.
And the elevator whirred, coming to life.
The elevator moved downward, in a short enough time that the two people rubbing their bruises hardly registered that it was no longer arrested, and then the doors opened on the building’s ground floor, where the two people who had inhabited the elevator just below the fourth floor for the past seventy-five minutes were greeted by a beaming Brooklynite maintenance man in boots.
“There ya go!” he said. “We gotcha outta theah, see.”
There was no one else to greet them. She walked out, feeling a little woozy, thanking the man, and Jonathan Franzen followed her, doing the same. And then Jonathan Franzen sped up his stride and pulled out in front of her, his head bent as his fingers danced along the surface of his BlackBerry, looking up the number of his publisher, who had likely left the three voicemails that were showing on the screen. She watched him go, noting that his hair was much more salt than pepper. She rushed to the bathroom and peed, victoriously, for five minutes. Then she walked out of the building into the street, and headed toward the subway to go back to Brooklyn. On the way home, she thought again about her Facebook status update, and by the time she surfaced from the G train in the borough where she lived, she had begun to warm up to this one: “Best thing about New York City: you might find yourself unexpectedly doing yoga with a famous writer.” It would certainly provoke “Comments,” and “Likes,” from her “Friends.”
But when she arrived at her apartment, she didn’t post anything on Facebook at all. She made a cup of coffee and drank it black. She called her dad, and reported that the interview had gone well; he said his fingers were crossed. She submitted an 800-word article to the Web site she wrote for. She went to her seven o’clock yoga class. And in the middle of it, she was struck by a sensation of complete ecstasy, of freedom, as if she were flying in a dream or dancing on the beach. The feeling was accompanied by an image of Jonathan Franzen straining to do a downward dog, his heels nowhere near meeting the ground and his glasses slipping off his nose, with his blazer crumpled in a pile next to him.