On Monday morning, Lydia found a note on her desk in her office at the magazine. Bitch I’m going to fuck you up the ass, it read. The handwriting was scraggly and uncertain looking, as if whoever wrote it had used their left hand, or their right hand if they were left-handed. The paper was the kind that was used for copies, and the ink was blue from a ballpoint pen. Because correcting errors in punctuation and grammar was what Lydia did every day, she was distracted by the lack of a comma after bitch. She took the note to the Managing Editor. He was sitting at the conference table in his office.
“Harrison, look what I found on my desk.” She affected a casual attitude because she wanted to see his surprise. His shoulders twitched as he began to read, his wisecracker face going slack.
“You found this on your desk?” he said.
“Yup.” She crossed her arms over her chest. She knew what he was thinking: no man in his right mind would want to fuck a woman her age any which way, regardless of his intent. Barely qualified thirty-year-old men seemed to be running the world these days, while women like her, with decades of experience, toiled to make them look good. The magazine was about sports, and all the writers were men. Like children, they wore blue jeans, and the caps of their favorite teams, and great galumphing sneakers on their feet. Lydia wore a skirt or dressy slacks every day, and if she went out to lunch it was usually with the Editor-in-Chief’s assistant, Ramona, a woman about her own age.
“Keep this to yourself until I find out who wrote it,” Harrison said.
“Okay,” Lydia said. “But how do you plan to do that?”
“Don’t you worry,” he said.
Lydia shrugged and tucked the note into her blazer pocket. Feathers would probably be ruffled, and she would be treated with kid gloves for a while, but nothing else would come of it, and she honestly didn’t care. The threat was an empty one, of that much she was sure.
She went back to her office, turned on her computer, and began to copy edit a human-interest article about a blind discus thrower. There were so many errors that she thought about scolding the writer, but decided not to when it occurred to her that her propensity for finger wagging might have been the inspiration for the note. She knew she had a reputation for being tough, but she thought she was well liked. Many times over the years, she’d been told how valuable she was. She tried to think who on the staff might have had something against her, but to her mind they were all nice enough young men, not so different than her son Lester, who was an executive at Facebook in California. Thinking about him made her feel like talking to him, so she picked up her phone and speed-dialed his number.
“Mom, it’s not even seven o’clock here,” he said.
“You’re too busy to talk to me at work,” she said. “And then you’re out gallivanting at night. When else am I supposed to get a hold of you?”
“Gallivanting!” he said. “That’s such a Mom word. What have you been up to?”
“This and that,” she said, considering whether to tell him. Why not. “I found a filthy note on my desk this morning.”
“Nasty language, I won’t repeat it. It looks like a three-year-old wrote it.”
“Wait, is it threatening?”
She was pleased by the concern in his voice. She had raised him alone after she and his father divorced, and they had a close relationship—even as a teenager, he’d come to her for advice. When she’d remarried during his sophomore year of college, he’d taken against her husband. The marriage hadn’t lasted long, anyway. She enjoyed her independence.
“It’s meant to be frightening, but I’m not in the least afraid. I’ll text it to you, you can see for yourself.” She took a shot of the note with her phone and sent him the picture.
“God, Mom. This is outrageous.”
She laughed. “It’s absurd, really. I’m fifty-nine years old.”
“What does that have to do with it? Why are you laughing?”
“Someone is angry at me, that’s all. It’s nothing to worry about. I showed it to Harrison. You should have seen his face!”
“I can imagine,” Lester said. “Still, watch out for yourself, okay?”
“Don’t I always?” Lydia said.
When she hung up the phone, she reread the note. Lester was right: it really was outrageous. Opening her desk drawer, she took out a pen and inserted the missing comma.
At one-thirty, Lydia’s phone rang.
“Hungry?” Ramona said. “I’m dying for spicy tuna.”
“Give me five minutes,” Lydia said. She resealed the Tupperware container of salad she’d brought from home, put on her coat, and took the elevator down thirty floors. Ramona was waiting at the lobby security counter, flirting with the guards. She was wraith thin and bottle blond, her hair as long and wild as a hippie’s; she wore four-inch heels and a low-cut top that showcased the rigid domes of her breasts. Lydia had a figure like an appliance box, and had never done anything to her brownish-gray hair beyond having it shampooed and cut.
“Lyd!” Ramona hooted, as if she hadn’t seen Lydia in ages. “We’re going for sushi,” she told the guards. Lydia ignored the guards, and they ignored her. She and Ramona walked down Sixth Avenue to Takamichi’s, where a phalanx of sushi chefs worked behind a Plexiglas sneeze guard.
“I went on another date with Mister Tartan,” Ramona said after they were seated and served. Mister Tartan was a man she had met on eHarmony who wore a tartan tie in his profile picture. She rarely referred to her dates by their given names when discussing them with Lydia.
“I thought you’d settled on The Dentist,” Lydia said. She maneuvered a slab of raw salmon onto her plate with her chopsticks. It was beautiful and disgusting at once, she thought. Sushi was good until you really thought about it.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Ramona said. “The Dentist is hopeless in bed.” She crammed a tuna roll into her mouth. “Missionary was the only way he would do it.”
“TMI,” Lydia said.
“Oh, don’t be such a prude,” Ramona said. “What’s new with you?”
Lydia hated being asked what was new because usually nothing was. It went without saying that Ramona’s life was more interesting than hers.
“Well, I do have news, but it’s a secret.” She took the note from a pocket inside her purse. “I found this on my desk this morning.”
Ramona took the note. Lydia watched her eyes widen as she read it.
“No way. You did not,” she said.
“I certainly did,” Lydia said. Why was she affronted? She would have said the same thing in Ramona’s place.
Ramona slid the note back across the table. “You wrote this, didn’t you.”
“What? Why would I write that?” Lydia said. “For what earthly reason?”
“Because you’re jealous that I have sex and you don’t. You want me to think you have a stalker.”
Lydia sat back. “It would never occur to me to do something like that, it doesn’t even make sense. Not everything is about you, by the way.”
“What do you mean by that?” Ramona said. “We talk about your life all the time. There’s nothing I haven’t heard about Lester, you go on about him nonstop.”
Lydia paused a moment before saying, “At least I have a child to talk about.”
Ramona stared. “I can’t believe you said that.”
“I can’t believe you think I’d write something like this.”
“Why is it a secret?” Ramona said.
“It’s a secret because I brought it to Harrison as soon as I found it, and he told me not to talk to anyone about it until he finds out who wrote it.”
“You took it to Harrison?”
“Of course I did,” Lydia said. “I thought he should know that someone in the office is writing lewd notes.”
“Harrison was humoring you, Lydia, don’t be an idiot.”
“He wasn’t,” Lydia said.
“The guys make fun of you, you know,” Ramona said. She blinked her eyes rapidly several times, the way Lydia did when she was nervous. “They imitate your tic behind your back. I’ve told them to knock it off, but they think it’s funny.”
Helplessly, Lydia blinked. She’d had the tic for as long as she could remember. “I don’t believe you. You’re making that up.”
“No, you’re making that up,” Ramona said, pointing at the note.
Lydia focused on Ramona’s glistening lips, clownishly plumped by some sort of filler, and painted a dusky maroon. She must have been gossiped about amongst the staff, a woman pushing sixty trying to look thirty years younger, but Lydia had never heard anything derogatory about her. She cast around for an insult.
“Everyone says you look like a trollop.”
Ramona laughed loudly. “Oh Lydia, how ridiculous. A trollop! No one would use that word except you.” She rummaged in her bag and took out her wallet. “This is for my half,” she said, dropping a twenty-dollar bill on the table. She stood and walked away.
Lydia calmly continued eating. People wouldn’t think anything about Ramona leaving; she might have had an appointment she had to rush off to, or was late for a meeting at work. They’d never had a falling out before. They worked in the same office, but not with each other, so there was nothing to fall out about. She looked around at the other customers, and saw four writers from the magazine sitting at a nearby table. She caught their attention and smiled. They smiled back at her, mouthing hello. Any one of them could have written the note.
When she left Takamichi’s, Lydia stood on the sidewalk debating whether or not to go to a nearby deli and buy a pack of cigarettes. Though she wasn’t really a smoker anymore, she still had the occasional craving. Likewise with alcohol: she rarely drank it. But she wanted to smoke a cigarette and drink a Manhattan right now, and she didn’t see why she shouldn’t. She bought a pack of Marlboros and walked down 49th Street to a bar, visible through a plate glass window, that she passed every day on her way to the office. The bar was new and swanky, with low gilded tables and velvet sofas. But sitting on a sofa alone would make her look as if she were waiting for someone to join her; when no one showed up, it would seem like she’d been jilted. She sat on a very comfortable stool at the bar, ordered a drink, and lit up.
“No smoking in here,” the bartender said.
Lydia looked behind her. There was no one else in the place but two men at the far end of the room. She could barely make them out. Silvery semi-sheer curtains had been drawn over the window, creating a twilight atmosphere. “Oh, please let me,” she said. “Just one?”
“Okay, one,” he said in a conspiratorial tone that told her she might have two.
She took a sip of her drink. There simply wasn’t a better combination of chemicals than alcohol and nicotine, sedation and stimulation deliciously entwined. She wondered if she and Ramona would make up. What else could they do? She decided she would say she was sorry first, even though she had nothing to be sorry about. Ramona had been the one who threw the first punch by accusing her of sexual envy. Hardly! Lydia didn’t even like sex; the idea of being with a man made her cringe. When she was younger, yes, she’d loved it. She’d had a healthy libido. In fact, she’d been quite promiscuous until she’d gotten pregnant with Lester—before she’d married his father, even—but she wasn’t going to brag to Ramona about it. Bragging was Ramona’s domain.
“Do you mind if I bum one?” someone said. Lydia swiveled around. A young woman sat on the adjacent stool. She wore black leather pants and a silky gold turtleneck; her face was heavily made up. Why so much make-up? Lydia wondered. She would have been just as attractive without it. She truly looked the way Ramona wanted to look: long blond hair, lithe body, thick-lashed feline eyes. She smiled at Lydia and said in a husky voice, “Bum a cigarette, I mean.
“We’re not really supposed to smoke,” Lydia said.
“And yet we are smoking,” the woman said as she took a cigarette and lit it. “I’ve never seen you here before.”
“No,” Lydia said. “Are you here often?”
“Fairly often.” She took a drag of the cigarette and let the smoke drift out of her mouth.
“It’s a nice place,” Lydia said for want of anything better. “I don’t normally drink in the middle of the day. I don’t drink at all, really. But it’s been a bad day, and I feel fed up.”
“About what?” the woman said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Oh, something happened at work, then my friend and I had an argument about it.”
The bartender appeared. “Hey, Dade.”
“Hey, Bruce,” the woman said. She turned back to Lydia. “So what’s this thing that happened at work?”
Lydia ground out her cigarette in a saucer the bartender had provided. “Someone left an obscene note on my desk.”
“What do you mean, obscene?”
“I can show it to you.”
“Oh my,” the woman said as she read the note. “Up the ass, no less!”
“I showed it to my boss, but my friend says he didn’t take me seriously. She thought I wrote it myself!”
“How stupid,” the woman said. “People are such shit.”
Lydia began to cry. The under-lit bottles on the other side of the bar blurred into a glowing, multi-hued wall; snot filled her nostrils until she could barely breathe. She blew her nose into a cocktail napkin. Why had she been the recipient of the note? It was monstrously unfair. She’d never hurt anyone in her life. She gripped the beveled edge of the bar as if it were the railing of a ship at sea. “I’m sorry,” she said to the woman.
“Don’t be,” the woman said. “I’ve cried over less.” She tapped the note with a glittery red fingernail. “This is sexual harassment, you know.”
“Oh no, not really,” Lydia said.
Lydia considered this for a minute. “I didn’t take it as seriously as that, but I guess you’re right. What should I do about it?”
“Demand action,” the woman said. She crossed her legs and blew out a stream of smoke. “Whoever wrote it should be fired. You have a right to a safe workplace.”
“I doubt they can find out who it was.”
“Then call your lawyer,” the woman said. “You can sue the company, make enough money to retire.” She raised her chin and closed her eyes. “Just imagine it! If it were me, I’d move to Paris and live on the Left Bank and wear a different Hermes scarf every day.”
Lydia smiled through her tears. “I always wanted to try my hand at writing a mystery novel. You know, like Agatha Christie or Ruth Rendell. I think I’d be pretty good at it.”
“There you go!” the woman said. “You could do anything you damn well please.”
What a generous woman, Lydia thought. She couldn’t remember feeling so encouraged. She wiped her eyes with the napkin and extended her hand.
“I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lydia.”
“What an unusual name,” Lydia said.
“It’s short for David.”
“I’ve never heard of a woman named David.”
Dade raised her eyebrows. “Oh, come on. Can you seriously not tell?”
“Tell what?” Lydia said.
“That I’m a man?” Dade said.
“A man!” Lydia said. Now she could see islands of shadow on Dade’s cheeks where her beard was covered by a thick layer of foundation. The revelation made her feel momentarily unhinged. “So that’s why you’re wearing so much makeup.”
Gingerly, Dade touched her face. “Do you think it’s too much?”
“What do I know about makeup,” Lydia said. “Gosh, your hair is amazing.”
“It’s a wig,” Dade said. Lydia reached out and touched it.
“It feels real,” she said.
“Oh, it’s real hair, just not my hair,” Dade said. “It cost a fortune.”
“I never would have guessed you’re a man if you hadn’t told me,” Lydia said.
“I can’t tell you what a compliment that is,” Dade said. “But you would have realized eventually. It’s pretty dark in here, and you’re obviously too nice to think anyone is pretending to be something they’re not.”
“I’m not that nice,” Lydia said.
The bartender came over. “Another round, ladies?”
“You bet,” Dade said. “Live large! Don’t you think so, Lydia?”
“Absolutely,” Lydia said. She looked at her phone: half past three. She hadn’t received any texts or calls. She could have been mugged and murdered for all anyone at the magazine cared. She took a mental inventory of the work on her desk, and decided it could wait.
By the time Lydia returned to work, nearly everyone had gone home. Offices were dark, computer screens blank; Ramona’s desk outside the Editor-in-Chief’s door was battened down for the night. Harrison was putting on his coat when Lydia walked in.
“Lydia, you’re still here?” he said. “What time is it, anyway?”
“I have no idea,” Lydia said. She glanced out the window at the building across the street. In the office exactly opposite, a middle-aged woman sat behind a computer. Just like me, Lydia thought. Except she wasn’t middle-aged anymore: she would be sixty in a few months. “Have you found the person who wrote the note?”
“Note?” Harrison said. He picked up the leather messenger bag he used as a briefcase and placed it on his desk. The desk was covered with the proofs of the magazine’s next issue that Lydia had gone over with a fine-toothed comb.
“The note I showed you this morning,” she said.
“Oh, right,” Harrison said.
“You didn’t even try,” she said. “You have no such intention.”
“Well, Lydia, let’s be realistic. Anyone with access to your office could have written that note.”
Lydia took the folded note from her purse and held it before her like a flag. “This is sexual harassment,” she said.
“Lydia, come on. There is a big difference between an anonymous note and sexual harassment.”
“What if your wife received a note like this, Harrison? How do you think she’d feel?”
“My wife doesn’t —” He stopped and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”
“I have,” she said. “What of it?”
“Okay, let’s have this conversation tomorrow. I think you’ll see things differently then.”
“It’s outrageous!” Lydia said.
Harrison nodded. “Absolutely it is. No question.”
He was humoring her. Ramona was right. Angrily, she turned away. The woman in the next building was tidying up. She crumpled a piece of paper and tossed expertly it into a wastebasket several feet from her desk, as if she’d put the wastebasket there as a challenge to herself.
“I’ve worked here for fourteen years. I thought I was a valued member of the staff. I’m going to have to call my lawyer about this, Harrison. I have a right to feel safe at work.” She turned back to Harrison. He had left the room. She went out into the hallway. He was gone.
She took the elevator back down to the lobby and walked over to the bar. It was crowded now with beautiful young people, mostly men; the seat she’d had earlier was occupied. She found another seat at the far corner of the bar. It was very loud.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” the bartender shouted.
“Where is Dade?” Lydia said.
“She left a few minutes ago.”
“Maybe I’ll have a drink before I go home,” Lydia said. Permanent inebriation seemed like a good idea now that she’d gotten started.
The bartender put his elbows on the bar and folded his hands beneath his chin. He was handsome in a cherubic way, one golden curl hanging over his forehead.
“It’s Lydia, right?” he said. Lydia nodded. “Lydia, this is a gay bar.”
“Oh,” Lydia said.
The bartender grinned. “You learn something new every day, huh?”
“Today especially,” she said.
She gave her seat to someone else and made her way through the crowd. Outside, the air smelled like snow, though it wouldn’t snow, or not very much, nothing like the deep, pristine blankets of her childhood. She walked to the subway and waited on the edge of platform for a downtown train. There were only a few other people in the station; no one was looking at her. Leaning over the tracks to see if a train was approaching, she saw headlights far down the tunnel. She watched as they grew larger and brighter, until the train was nearly at the station. She opened her purse, took out the note, and just as the train pulled abreast of the platform, flung it out over the tracks. Flashing white in the headlights, it flew on a gust, starkly illuminated before vanishing at last.