The children are untethered.
Their parents glide over the frozen surface of Prospect Park Lake, holding kite strings taut from the wind or simple magic. They are writing the names of the children into the ice with the blades of their skates. But the boys and girls, six in all, are drifting up into the storm, their arms outstretched. The sky awaits.
A summer ago, I was sketching this scene on a bench in Prospect Park, the third day of a heat wave that made descending into the subway a trip to a circle of hell. Always, I liked to draw out of the current season, but this, visiting winter in August, was a deliberate diversion.
A woman parked her stroller and sat beside me as her daughter took off on a scooter. We recognized each other at the same time, and when she smiled and said hello, I returned her greeting through a grimace. A year ago, I had temped at Emily’s office.
When I was introduced to her, she said, “Nice to meet you, Adair.”
Not “Claire” or “Blair” or “I’m sorry, what?”
Indeed, the whole three months I’d been there, she’d greeted me every morning as she passed by the front desk, where I sat waiting for the phone to ring. When she went out to lunch, she’d ask if I wanted anything. I always declined, not wanting to burden her with an extra cup of coffee, though it was hard to cross the long hours of the afternoon on only the weak coffee in the office kitchen.
This friendliness, intermittent as it was, meant we couldn’t politely ignore each other, not while sitting on the same bench. As though it were a chore on a list, Emily initiated small talk.
“You know, I wasn’t sure that was you for a minute. I didn’t remember your hair as red. Well, reddish, I should say.” She smiled. “Did you get highlights? I like it.”
I answered slowly, out of practice. It was Sunday afternoon and I hadn’t spoken to another person since Friday afternoon when I left work.
“It’s brown, really. The red only shows in the sun,” I said, reaching up self-consciously to touch the ends. It was getting long again, nearly to my shoulders.
The baby, Hazel, was about to turn one, she told me. Soon she would go back to work full time, and God, was she looking forward to it. I recalled the office with its hospital-green walls and the droning meetings I transcribed, where every voice sounded like a housefly butting against a windowpane.
“That’s great,” I said.
Emily laughed, and before she could continue her obligatory update, she caught sight of the sketchpad in my lap.
“That’s very good,” she said.
Her obvious surprise almost qualified as a backhanded compliment. You can draw? You’re an artist? The girl who answered our phones? The girl who spent an entire eight-hour workday shredding our old files? But I was used to the amazement when my temporary coworkers saw me in a new context. It was as if they’d learned the Xerox machine had a lovely singing voice.
“Really, Adair. These are fantastic. Can I—?”
I hesitated before handing my book to her. She studied the sketch and asked if I drew portraits of children. Say yes, she added, because then she would pay me to draw her oldest.
Yes, I answered.
She smiled. Come up with a price, she told me. Then double it.
I saw her only twice more, when I drew her daughter and when I delivered the final portrait. But she emailed me frequently, mostly introductions to this mom or that one, all of whom hired me.
Once Emily was back at work, she had no time for side projects like mentoring talented but rudderless young women she came across in city parks. Her emails grew so brief they were the snail mail equivalent of a postcard (“great!”), and I chided myself for believing that she’d become a friend.
But my business had gotten its start. After a week of trying to think of a clever name, I went with the simple Portraits by Adair. They became a must-have in the neighborhood. A Maclaren stroller. A McCrohan portrait. My surname, easy to spell but tricky out loud, had finally proved an asset. (Crow-what? Hand?)
Then, a year after our meeting in the park, Emily emailed and asked me to draw Hazel, who was now two. Emily and her husband lived in Cobble Hill, four stops on the F train from me. It was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived at the door beneath the stoop, as instructed. I rang the doorbell.
Emily answered as I was about to pull my glove off and knock.