Diane squinted against the afternoon sleet and shoved her last two fifties into the raggedy man’s hand. “Go someplace warm. Please.”
His eyes lit up with recognition. “Why, thank you, missy.” His smile revealed fewer teeth since she’d last seen him. How many years had he begged at this corner?
“You’re welcome. Now go get warm, okay?” Wheeled suitcase bumping behind her, she walked away at a brisk pace so he wouldn't see her expression crumple. Visions of gallery openings, resplendent with tuxedos and evening gowns and artwork that sold for a lifetime’s wages, welled in her mind like hot tears. She swallowed the bitter lump in her throat. How could a city as beautiful and rich as New York have a chronic homeless problem?
She mounted the high-rise’s steps. Pelting ice stung like Garret’s last words. With silent thanks, she pushed her keycard into the pad by the main door and fingered her entry code. The deserted lobby was quiet as a tomb.
Parents in Dubai, brother away at university, the family condo remained empty this year. Her mother had suggested selling it, but her father loved it here in New York, just as Diane had, so the condo was spared.
The elevator wall was cold against her forehead. Her two-year stint as Garret’s roommate was over, finished with a “stick a fork in it I’m done” kind of flourish. Great experience, with a price. Just like this city.
Chiding herself, she recalled Garret’s comments after he’d offered her his spare bedroom. “It’s just a professional arrangement. I’m rarely there. Why spend two hours on the subway every day? You need time at the studio; I need you in the gallery. And I promise, I’m perfectly safe.”
Diane smiled ruefully. Two years, and she hadn’t even been able to confirm Garret’s sexuality - homo, hetero, bi, mono, non? Though sometimes she thought she’d felt the heat of his gaze...in those early days. New York’s greatest mystery, inconsequential as usual, remained unsolved. Maybe Garret’s next pet would uncover it.
The elevator lurched to a stop at the nineteenth floor. Diane’s stomach remained on the lobby’s cold marble tile. Tutelage under Garret duSache, owner of five art studios in the Burroughs, had been irresistible. And the offer of his spare bedroom, a short walk from the studio and gallery where she worked, well...
But the promised studio time had evaporated under her responsibilities at the gallery, and she’d felt her position with Garret slide from debutante to protégé to employee. How could the quality of her sculptures not slide, too?
“It could adorn every redneck yard from here to Georgia. Really, Diane, I don’t know why you waste your time.” Someday, when she could bear to look at it again, she would sculpt Garret’s pinched expression onto the face of a jackass.
After Garret left the studio, she’d destroyed her work-in-progress, pounding the soft clay until her whimsical mermaid morphed into a ferocious cubist nightmare, something more attuned to Garret’s customers’ tastes, no doubt. Then she walked out, stopping by his apartment to throw clothes into her suitcase, leaving behind everything he’d bought for her.
What would she do now?
In her parents’ condo, Diane pushed her long brown hair behind her ears and turned the heat up. Before this morning, New York was everything she wanted and needed. Now it suffocated her.
A cursory search of the kitchen yielded a few boxes of dry goods. Diane inserted a fresh filter into the water pitcher and filled it up. Within minutes the comforting aroma of instant cocoa filled the condo. Sleet pelted the window. Go someplace warm.
She set her cup down and crossed the dining area to reach her mother’s overstuffed filing cabinet. Wriggling old folders out of it, she carefully stacked them on the dining room table. Brazil, Kenya, Alaska, Wyoming…
Some women collected jewelry or art; Diane’s mother collected property. Much of it was non-transferable, closed to development, and ownership would be transferred to neighboring parks or wildlife reserves within a hundred years. In exchange her mother got tax breaks, was allowed to maintain existing structures, and retained lifelong access for herself and her beneficiaries. Diane decided to use that access.
She removed the last folders from the top drawer, and a stack of loose papers at the back collapsed, uncovering a small, white cardboard jewelry box. Beneath it, a large, pastel greeting card displayed two smiling mermaids on either side of a treasure chest. Diane picked the card up, and a key clattered to the drawer’s bottom. Not an ordinary key, but a six-inch bronze Victorian monstrosity with a smooth brown patina.
Setting the card and box on the table, Diane held the key to the light. “KEY TO THE CITY” was stamped along its barrel. The word “False” was etched in bold calligraphy on its shell-and-starfish embellished head. Finding no other markings, she placed it on the table and picked up the box.
Inside, embedded in cotton padding, was an inch-long dried starfish on a thin gold chain. Diane ran a finger over the small bumpy carcass and felt rather sorry for the creature, torn from its home for no other purpose than this.
She turned her attention to the card and automatically evaluated its artwork. Well executed, pleasant colors. The verse inside read, “Seek life’s riches where you least expect to find them.” It was signed at the bottom, “I can’t wait to see you again, Rai.” Diane’s eyebrows raised. Who’s Rai? The handwriting was androgynous. She decided to call it a night.
Diane dreamed she was sitting in the audience at one of Garret’s gallery openings, dressed in a strapless gown that wrapped pastel colors tightly around her body. The starfish necklace hung at her throat. Suddenly the starfish moved, softly tickling her neck as it suckered its way up. Frozen in panic, she glanced around the room. No one noticed her jewelry’s odd behavior. She relaxed until the starfish reached her ear and whispered, “Take me home.”
The next morning, sunlight bounced off icicles in a golden fury. Diane passed the dining room table and eyed the innocent-looking starfish in its box beside the bronze key. She returned to the filing cabinet. Someplace warm, but in the continental United States, with a decent house.
A folder labeled “Florida” caught her eye. An old photograph of a cinderblock bungalow surrounded by palmettos sat inside the folder, along with an aged map of Florida with a red circle around the island farthest from the mainland. Diane squinted at the map's small print and read, “False Key.” Gazing at the bronze key with “False” engraved at its top, she groaned at the pun. Then she finally laughed.
It was a genuine laugh, a sound she’d made far too seldom this year. She fished her phone out of her pocket. “Hello, Mom?…”