The Audacious Magpie
A Novel in Real-Time
Chapter 1: Meeting Magpie
January 18, 2014
She had me at "hell no."
This stranger looked like Pippi Longstocking all grown up with a pixie cut instead of wiry braids. A bright smile and constellation of freckles were the backdrop to a pair of light blue eyes. She was all elbows and no curves in a bright yellow dress that stood out from the sea of customary New York black.
She had wandered into the kitchen as I was opening champagne during my routine mid-party restock.
I laughed at her flat refusal of bubbly and motioned to the counter full of bottles, "something else then?"
"Sorry to be so abrupt. It's only that I had far too much champagne on New Year's Eve." She made a face to communicate the outcome.
"Ah, I see. Soda or juice instead?" I moved to open the fridge.
"Ginger ale would be lovely, thank you."
Bringing out two bottles, I introduced myself while giving her one. "I'm Gus, by the way."
"Lenny," she said with a laugh. I joined her, smiling at the unspoken joke. We were two girls in party dresses introducing ourselves like a pair of old men.
"Is Lenny short for something?" I asked, moving back to open a second bottle of champagne.
"Magdalene, but not for Mary Magdalene like you might think."
"Oh?" I listened while removing the bottle's gold foil.
"You see, my mom's favorite actress was Marlene Dietrich. Well, her screen name was Marlene Dietrich. Her given name was Marie Magdalene. Most people don't know that or even know her for that matter. She made her biggest films in the 1930's. Some say she was Germany's response to Greta Garbo, the Swedish bombshell.
"When I was older and finally saw her films, I always thought it was funny that my mom loved her so much. Marlene was very, how shall I say, liberated for her time. My mom was an apron-on-at-5, dinner-on-at-6, nightgown-on-at-7 kind of woman. She is marvelous, but not glamorous and certainly not scandalous. Still, she just really loves those old black and whites.
"Much more than her films though, my mom loves how Marlene Dietrich refused to return to Germany during World War II and instead stayed in the United States selling war bonds for the Allied forces. She was beautiful, she was talented and she had guts, my mother used to say. She put humanity over country. Now that's the way to do it."
"She sounds like quite a namesake." I popped the cork and smiled.
Izzy's boyfriend entered the kitchen then and I handed him the open bottles to take back into the party.
"Oh, I don't mean to keep you hostage in here," Lenny apologized.
"Not at all, it's nice not have to yell over the noise."
Izzy's birthday parties always drew a crowd. My best friend of five years had amassed a considerable entourage during her 33 years in the city. Personally, I preferred intimate dinner parties, but I was happy to host this gathering for my friend. Her postage-stamp studio in the West Village would have burst at the seams.
My place was large enough, a spacious one-bedroom overlooking the Hudson in Harlem. I'd fallen in love with the long galley kitchen just off the entryway. It had high ceilings with a big window at one end and the morning sun made my glass jars of sugar and spice shine. They sat on silver shelves above the counter where I taught myself new recipes on Sunday evenings.
There was enough room in the kitchen to cook a six-course meal, though the dishes had to be walked down the long hall into the main room. This separation made the kitchen the quietest room in the apartment now. Still, I could hear the party's buzz growing louder as drinks flowed and more guests arrived.
"So, how do you know Izzy?" I asked, tying up my hair in a loose bun and putting on an apron.
"You know, I actually haven't met her yet. An acquaintance from spin class was nice enough to invite me along tonight. I hope it's okay to be a bit of a party crasher."
"Of course! You're 100% welcome and I speak for Izzy as well."
Izzy was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew and her heart was as big as Brooklyn. She had no walls around that heart and let people in by droves.
"Thank you." Lenny looked relieved. "This is actually my first house party since moving here."
"Oh? Where are you from?" I asked while pulling out cheese and fruit from the fridge. Like it was the most natural thing, Lenny started washing and cutting the fruit as though we were a couple of line cooks.
"I moved here from Boise, Idaho in May. I'm a freelance copy editor so I can work most anywhere. I've always been enamored with New York. Its magnetism practically pulled me across the Mississippi.
"I loved the idea of coming here to be anyone, to blend into the throngs. Back home I was always bumping into high school friends and favorite grade school teachers. It's not that I ever minded, but at a certain point you know you've outgrown a place.
"Of course every city has two sides to it and New York can't be any different. You so easily blend into the crowd here, but then no one is really looking out for you. I've found that almost perfect anonymity is one of the most lovely and lonely things about New York."
With that, Lenny summed up my current dilemma with the city's duality. The tug-of-war between infatuation and loathing for this place had felt especially poignant during the last several months. With my white knuckles gripping the emotional see-saw, I was starting to question if the ride was worth it.
After moving here for grad school, also known as my two-year honeymoon with New York, I had the growing feeling that living here was like being married to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This realization had struck me for the first time this past summer.
After leaving work one warm August evening, I attended a poetry reading in Bryant Park. The poet was enthusiastic as we reveled in his prose. I then walked up to Lincoln Center's outdoor jazz festival and swayed to the saxophone's lullaby while licking a chocolate cone. When I finally made my way home, a soft breeze rustled the leaves in harmony with the gurgling river.
The next morning I woke to find a cockroach the size of a clothespin in my bathroom, the toilet handle broke off in my hand and I had to jump over our apartment building's rubbish that someone had scattered across the entire sidewalk. Then, there was no air conditioning on the subways. Standing shoulder to shoulder with sweat trickling down, we cringed as the cars slowed to a stop and the conductor announced that we were being held because of train traffic ahead of us.
Don't get too comfortable, the city seemed to say. Just when you think you're sleeping next to Dr. Jekyll, you'll turn to find Mr. Hyde in your bed.
Lenny was right that each place has two sides and I couldn't fault New York for this. The trouble was a growing discomfort that old Hydey was rubbing off on me. While home for Christmas I saw in myself a brusqueness that wasn't there before. It was only by comparison with old friends that I noticed my heightened impatience, an exaggerated distance from strangers and a slight sneer for slowness. Before first moving from Denver five years back, a friend had gently teased me that I should be careful not to let New York harden me. I joked back that I would be on the lookout. Perhaps I should have considered the warning more seriously.
Lenny brought me back to the conversation. "The hardest part of moving here has been finding my social footing. It seems a lot of people our age aren't really hiring for friends. Working from home doesn't help my cause much either.
"In the beginning, during the summer, this didn't really bother me. Simply figuring out what it means to live here was enough. Walking down the streets is like mastering the tango. Standing in a subway station during rush hour feels like being at the beach when the tide rushes in. So much energy and movement is delightful and dizzying. There's just so much life here. Artists performing on street corners are so good you'd pay to see them elsewhere. The smell of spicy gyros on every block constantly leaves my mouth watering, even in the morning. I think my favorite part is being able to walk anywhere so freely, even at 3am. It's like a massive 24/7 carnival.
"But after the first few months of enjoying summer alone, I decided to be really open with casual acquaintances about my desire to find a community here. The older women from my language class, my hairdresser, people from my gym. I easily broadcast that I'm a friend for hire to see if there are any takers." Lenny smiled and I knew this was an exaggeration. Still, I felt for her. I often wondered how I'd navigate this city without my built-in network from school.
"Well, I hope you include some killer knife skills on your resume," I joked as she sliced up the strawberries.
"For sure," she said smiling. "Thanks for letting me share all of that. I don't usually give such a speech to everyone, but one of my New Year's resolutions is to live more honestly. I think we all keep so much in and if we only shared more we'd find a hundred common bonds.
"Still, it's a bad habit of mine to chatter on so. I've been at home editing all day and my own words tend to spill all over the place when I've kept them pent up too long. Heaven help the delivery guy who shows up when I haven't left the house!
"I suppose I've always been this way. My dad calls me Magpie, his nickname for Magdalene, because of my tendency to fill the air with words.
"Speaking of nicknames, tell me about yours. Did your parents always wish for a daughter named Gus?"
I laughed. "Well, it also has some story to it."
"I'm all ears," she said, leaning down to empty her board of scraps into the bin underneath the counter. But instead of tossing them in, she laid the board back down, her eyes fixed on something. "No way," she whispered.
She picked it up and showed me an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
"Oh, yes," I chuckled. "Izzy brought it. Supposedly it is super hard to come by. She had been saving it for tonight."
For the first time since entering the kitchen Lenny seemed lost for words. She gazed at the bottle with a smile and bright look in her eyes.
"Yes. This is only the second time I've seen it." She paused again, looking at the picture of the old man's face on the label.
"The first time, though—now that is a story, Gus."