Their kitchen was blue. Not by her choosing, nor by his. It had been that way when they moved in, when Sara had thought she could get used to the color.
She glanced the Times on the counter on her way to the door. Something about Syria, something about the pay gap. He filled a thermos with coffee and gave it to her as she stepped from the apartment. “Thank you, thank you,” she shook her head and kissed him quickly, “you’re too good to me.”
With the door shut, she felt lighter. She put her headphones in and pushed the volume up to its highest. She stepped down the stairs and out onto her would-be-noisy-if-she-could-hear-anything street. There was no audial difference between inside and outside, she liked that.
It rained. She did not carry an umbrella because she was carrying coffee and she could only carry so many things. Her coat had a hood though, thick black cotton.
Underground, Sara slid the card through the turnstile reader just as the gate gave way to the pressure from her left thigh. A mid-morning perfection. Doubly so, because the 6 train was arriving at the station as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
On the train, a Bonnie Raitt song in her ears. Maybe because of this, the chrome of the car made her think of a diner outside Madison that she used to go to in high school with her friends. The owner had loved their consistency—they went every Friday—and that they let him alone while he read his paper and listened to their simple stories. He would sometimes give them free toppings on their sundaes. What was each of those girls—those women—doing this morning? Breastfeeding their babies on a porch swing, maybe. Making cookies for a school bake sale. Something parochial. Something like sundaes at a diner outside Madison.
Glancing around the car she saw a former coworker, Gretchen Hanson, hanging onto a subway pole with a crafted delicateness. She had always liked Gretchen, but she turned her body away from her anyway, hoping to guard her solitude, thankful, as usual, for her hood. It was too late, though. Gretchen had seen her and was waving and speaking some soundless greeting. Sara pulled the phone from her jacket pocket and pressed the pause button. The tunnel’s roar poured in. She took a deep breath.
“Sara!” Gretchen called, presumably not for the first time, still waving a ringed hand at her. “It’s been too long! How have you been?”
“Hi Gretchen,” Sara said, moving toward her, squeezing between two other riders. “It has, it’s been a while since you left us.”
“Are you still there?” Gretchen asked, “How is it?”
“I really can’t complain,” Sara replied, “Still loving the work.”
“That’s wonderful,” Gretchen placed her hand on Sara’s upper arm for a moment and squeezed. Sara watched the other hand, the rings on the subway pole.
“You got married,” Sara said. “That’s great.”
“I did, just this past summer,” Gretchen replied. “You remember Jack, don’t you?”
Sara did remember Jack. She had met him at a smattering of corporate gatherings, tied to Gretchen’s side, his hand on the small of her back. They were beautiful together. “Of course I remember Jack.” Sara said. “I’m so happy for you two. What a very big year. I can only imagine.”
“Thanks,” Gretchen shrugged, “but really, the noblest thing I’ve done this year is fit into a wedding dress I purposely bought one size too small. What about you and your boyfriend, you’re still together?”
“Still going strong.” Sara smiled. She swung her arm with a triumphant fist and then regretted it. “Are you working downtown?”
“Oh, no, I’m actually heading downtown to the courthouse,” she gestured to a manila folder crutched under her arm. “I’m getting my name changed. Turns out if you want to take your husband’s name it’s no problem, but if you want to keep your maiden name as your middle name, they make you hike a mountain first. It’s been a nightmare getting all this stuff together.”
“Really? I had no idea. Sounds like some bullshit to me,” Sara said glancing at the folder. Dog-eared sheets peeked from its borders. She decided not to press the question of what Gretchen was doing for work now. Instead, she looked up at the train’s lighted sign. She smiled. “Gretchen, so good to see you, really. My stop’s next. All my best to you and Jack.”
“No, it’s so good to see you, Sara! I do wish we had stayed in touch after I left the company. I’m sure you know how easy it is to get lost in everything.”
“Oh no, please. I do understand,” said Sara. “You got married this year.”
“Maybe we can get a drink sometime?”
“That would be very nice,” Sara said, knowing they wouldn’t. She leaned in and gave Gretchen a kiss on the cheek. The doors opened and she turned and joined the crowd.
Gretchen watched through a rounded train window as Sara climbed the stairs, shoulders back, fast-paced, sure. She got off at the following stop, aware of her sloppy folder. Sara’s lips were still on her face.
Outside, wet leaves and crisp bright air. The city was sharpened, brought into focus by the recent rain. Gretchen couldn’t remember what the trees had looked like with leaves on them. Had the entire year passed without her realizing? Were the leaves in New York green one day and fallen the next?
A brunch with Anne in early summer seemed just yesterday. An open-air café in Park Slope. Bloody Marys in mason jars. Gretchen asked Anne about Sara, knowing they stayed in touch. The three of them had shared a cubicle at the consulting firm where they had worked. Anne said that Sara had been promoted to Director, and had been the keynote speaker at a recent conference. “It’s impressive. I mean, granted she’s older than us. But still, I don’t know if I could be there in three years. She’s just so goddamn independent. And she gets what she wants,” Anne looked momentarily embarrassed. “Although she hasn’t gotten that has she?” she’d winked, gesturing at Gretchen’s diamond.
“No, I guess not,” Gretchen said, glancing down. “But I never had the feeling that Sara wanted to be married.” Her hand rested in a sun-filled spot of the white tablecloth. The ring was blinding if it caught the eye at the right angle. “I’m still not used to this,” she laughed, fingering the stone.
Gretchen found the courthouse easily. She had seen it many times before but today it seemed looming, the columns too tall for their width. The security guard inside asked to see in her bag and she blushed when she realized her birth control pills and tampons were in plain view. Seemingly unfazed, the guard directed her to the office, which was on the fifth floor. It smelled like an old book. The crown molding had been warped by coats of white paint and the carpeting worn down to the backing in spots. Worn by women changing their names.
“How can I help you, ma’am?” The clerk asked Gretchen as she walked in. He was around her age and was not wearing a wedding ring.
“I’m here to change my name.” Gretchen said, and handed over her folder, happy to be rid of it. “Isn’t that what everyone comes here for?”
“All right,” he said. “So date of birth is April 6, 1990?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And your new name will be Gretchen Hanson Ward.”
“Yes, it’s all on the forms there,” she said.
“I know, I see, I just need to confirm everything. So we have the fee here, that’s good.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And this is the latest application, so that’s no problem.”
“Yes,” she said, leaning over to see the forms as he sifted through them. “And there’s the marriage certificate.”
“Congratulations. Today is your three-month anniversary,” he said.
“Is it?” she asked.
“Hmm,” he said, “But, I’m not seeing the actual name change form here,” he was flipping through the documents for a second time now.
“No, everything is there,” she said. “I’ve gone through the checklist, I got my birth certificate here.” She reached over the counter to take the documents and show him.
“Ma’am please, let me just get an idea of what you’re missing.”
“We’re not missing anything,” she said, grabbing at the checklist at the top of the pile. As she pulled the paper across the counter, the man’s hand followed hers and knocked into her Starbucks cup, which was also too tall for its width, apparently. Gretchen grabbed at it, too late. Lukewarm coffee was everywhere. Milky drops fell from the side of the counter onto her shoes. The papers sucked it up as if they hoped they might turn back into trees.
“I am so sorry ma’am; this was absolutely my fault,” the clerk’s face was red. “But, I definitely can’t photocopy these documents now. I think we’ll have to reschedule.”
“It’s really ok,” she said. She wanted to give him a kiss on the cheek. Instead she helped him clean up the coffee and left.
In the subway station under Canal Street there was a musician playing the accordion. A fuchsia banner hung on the wall next to him, which gave his name, and said that he was a part of the Music Under New York program. Sara had seen him many times before, but had never read his sign until that day. She had never heard his music before and did not hear it that day either—her headphones were in. But he was small and cheerful and he was trying. She pulled out her wallet and placed a five in the almost empty case by his feet. He gave her a wide smile and said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She was still buzzing from that smile when she climbed the stairs to the apartment. A discrete transaction, but with such a lovely outcome. She hadn’t even given him her ears. But that’s how she wanted to give. She wanted to give him just five dollars, for the first time, every day.