Good enough, she thinks, puckering one more time into a piece of tissue. She leans away a little from the dressing table, makes a final appraisal. Maybe a touchup with some light powder. She snaps the compact shut, stands, and steps back from the mirror. One last long view: tailored wool suit (fifteen dollars at Oppenheim Collins on West Thirty-Fourth Street), a single strand of pearls, gloves, and her hat. Since she was old enough to understand fashion, she has abided by one credo and one credo only, and that is from Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue: “Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess.”
She slips her arms into her coat. She will not be outside long, but still, she will be outside. She takes a deep breath.
Should she bring her bag? Yes, it will have her identification inside. She slides it onto her crooked forearm, then downs the final gulp of whiskey from the crystal tumbler on her dressing table, feels it barrel down her throat, warm and bitter. A small smile escapes as she glances at the suitcase and hatbox beside the door. Both are empty. Thank God, neither of the girls had the chance to pick them up before they’d left. She’d have been found out. And then what would she have done?
She steps out into the hallway. Quiet. It is Friday, the last before Christmas. Most of the girls have left already. The lucky ones are sipping champagne, on dates at the Stork or the Harwyn, others already on trains or buses back home for the holidays, bags packed and brimming with lies about their fizzy days in the big city. Those left behind are scattered about the building, “the Women,” as they are known but never called, each locked on the other side of her door, her only company tepid tea and crossword puzzles.
She passes the elevator bank. If she steps into the elevator, there will most certainly be questions from the operator, one always desperate for a story. Instead, she exits the door at the end of the hall that leads to the stairwell, beginning a slow, steady ascent up the steps.
It is fifteen minutes before she pushes the door out, feels the whoosh of crisp night air rush at her. She is winded from walking up so many flights in heels, but the biting chill feels good seizing her lungs. She steps onto the veranda, looks out onto New York—on beautiful, wonderful, dizzying New York, teeming with life, each tiny lit window a tale: of someone, of something, of heartbreak and triumph and joy and agony and stupidity and sorrow and sex and laughter and betrayal and loneliness.
She takes in another deep breath, places her hands on the balustrade. It is, she thinks, a glorious night to die.
It was curious that a building so large, with so many people hurrying in so many different directions, could be so quiet. And yet the noise inside Grand Central was not so much cacophony, as one might expect from the “train station of the world,” but rather a low, steady hum, like a running current of electricity, fed by hundreds and hundreds of people passing one another by.
Laura wanted to stay here. Just stay still and be. Stand invisible and safe by the elegant old clock in the middle of the terminal and study the faces of every single person coming and going. Imagine their backstories, invent tales of long-lost lovers reunited, rushing to one another as the sun splashed, cathedral-like, down from the long, slender windows. It was at these moments when she felt her body tense with energy. She could write their stories. Would write them. It was, after all, why she had come.
She looked at the clock again. One.
I’d better call.
She lugged her suitcases over to a wall of phone booths and slipped into the last of them. “Yes, operator?” she said. “I’d like to place a collect call to Greenwich, Connecticut, please. Greenwich-1, 3453.”
David picked up. For an eleven-year-old, he had a strange obsession with the phone, always wanted to answer it, which no one could explain but everyone acquiesced to, grateful he didn’t sport even more peculiar habits. His cousin Donald had occasionally been caught wearing his mother’s jewelry, which everyone also knew but never acknowledged. Such things were not spoken of in the Dixon family.
“Hey, Bucko, it’s Laura,” she said, enjoying the unvarnished glee in his voice as he unleashed an avalanche of questions about the train ride down, about the apartment—she’d stopped correcting him that it was just a room—that she actually had yet to step into. “No, no, no,” she was saying, trying to cut him off. “I’m still in the train station. I promise I will write you a long letter and tell you everything as soon as there is an everything to tell. But I will tell you I already bought you something.”
He sounded as if he might actually reach through the phone to get it. “What?! What?!!”
“The latest Batman. I think they get them earlier here than they do at Carson’s.” Now in a complete frenzy, he insisted on knowing what the cover looked like, what the story was about. She fumbled with her bag and extracted the July issue of Detective Comics. “The Thousand-and-One Escapes of Batman and Robin,” she relayed, perusing the cover image of Batman and his trusty sidekick bound and about to drown. Marmy didn’t like David reading comic books—“Superman is not going to get him accepted at Yale” was a favorite axiom—but Laura’s father pointed out that it was better than an addiction to television. “I’ll send it back with Marmy when she visits.”
“No, no!” the boy protested. “She’ll just throw it out.”
He had a point. “Hmm. Okay, how about this: I’ll hide it inside another gift for you. See how that works out? Now you’ll get two things from New York.”
Mollified, he went to get his mother. Laura had pictured Marmy waiting by the phone for her call, but instead heard David yelling up the stairs, telling her to pick up. Perhaps she had one of her headaches.
The other line clicked alive. “Hang up, David,” her mother said. The kitchen phone clicked off. “Well, you arrived safe and sound, then? Are you at the hotel?”
“No, I’m still at Grand Central Station. It’s —”
“Terminal, dear. It’s Grand Central Terminal. Please be precise, Laura. Women of good breeding are always precise.”
Laura inhaled sharply. “Of course,” she mumbled. She wanted to tell her mother that being precise wasn’t what counted, what was important. Right now what was important was to be downstairs in the Oyster Bar, sipping a Tom Collins, making witty conversation with a traveling salesman from St. Louis who thought she was the most fascinating and sophisticated girl ever and had never heard of Greenwich, Connecticut, and never, ever wanted to go there.
But she couldn’t and knew she wouldn’t. One wrong word and she’d be back in Greenwich overnight. And the next time she may never get out.
“Remember, Aunt Marjorie and I will be down in two weeks to take you shopping for the rest of your war...