Last night Marta dreamed that she had forgotten to wear shoes again. This happened all the time. She headed to work and realized that she was barefoot. Sometimes she looked for a shoe store on the way to her office, figuring she could buy some cheap ballet flats that would get her through the day. Other times she just kept her feet under the desk and hoped no one would notice.
Marta was raised in a warm climate so these dreams never caused her physical distress, just embarrassment. The need to conceal her feet was the driving emotion. Now that she had moved to New York City, there were new concerns.
She knew that women paid unbelievable amounts of money to teeter on uncomfortable heels but she couldn’t fathom why anyone would pay $750 for Jimmy Choo’s. Her inability to understand their appeal made her wonder if she belonged in the City. Her roommate, Diana, took great pleasure in shopping, although she never paid retail.
The morning she left the City, Marta put on a pair of practical black pumps in need of polish. The kind of shoes no one noticed.
Her roommate, who no longer tried to fix her up with friends of her many friends, once told her that she over-analyzed. Her boss, Lydia, who dismissed her frequent requests for a raise, once told her that she was short-sighted. In the end it didn’t matter. She kept meticulous books, a talent that secured her livelihood. She thought of life as a puzzle and she was good at puzzles.
Marta began working as a bookkeeper at the Lotus Company, a New York City importer of Asian goods, right after she graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Finance. She expected to be underemployed but accepted the job because the post promised trips to China. Her boss, an overweight and overbearing woman with hair dyed an implausible shade of red, wore elegant and expansive silk brocade shifts, each handmade by a custom tailor with shoes dyed to match. Marta worked out of Lydia’s apartment in a high rise on the East Side of Manhattan with a view of midtown. Her responsibilities were not well defined. In addition to the books, she ran errands and provided a less than sympathetic ear to her employer who had an endless litany of aches, pains, and situations in which she felt she had been taken advantage of. Lydia’s much older and extremely wealthy husband had passed away after a heart attack ten years earlier and had left her the family company and an all-encompassing sense of entitlement.
The numbers were the easy part.
Lydia dangled the promise of foreign travel and raises that never came. She was pleased with Marta’s work and within months promoted her to Assistant. The promotion came without a change in salary or working conditions. She still expected Marta to pick up her personal prescriptions from CVS, a task which filled Marta with resentment.
Marta and Diana lived in a midtown residence for women. The location was good; the rent reasonable. They had a cozy room with double beds, a small refrigerator and sink. When they had first moved in, both new to the City, they had not realized that the hotel was also used as a transitional residence for psychiatric patients being discharged from Bellevue Hospital.
Sometimes, the bizarre behavior of their neighbors alarmed them. They had to use a shared bathroom in the hallway. To minimize the danger, they never drank water before going to bed.
Diana loved Manhattan. She developed an offbeat sense of style and cruised resale stores for underpriced items, gently used designer clothes, trendy platform shoes. She often went out after work to drink with office mates. She sang Karaoke and slept with men she had just met. On those nights, Marta was left alone at the residence, often feeling too uncomfortable to leave her room. Instead she went over Lydia’s books and realized that she didn’t need to wait for Lydia to give her a raise. It was all a matter of credits and debits.
To ease her mind, Marta bought a book that suggested interpretations for common dreams. She developed a fear of forgetting to put on items of clothing. In the hallway outside her room, she sometimes heard women talking to themselves. Paranoia was rampant among the building’s residents. On the door next to theirs, the occupant had taped a sign for the exterminator which said Don’t kill me. Down the hallway, a woman had single handedly moved her stove to block her door for safety.
The book about dreams said that nakedness could express fears of rejection. A dreamer might be naked in public and everyone would be laughing at her. Marta dismissed this explanation out of hand. To be rejected required a need for acceptance. Marta had Diana and a good job and wasn’t asking for anything more. Her academic record was solid. She was well liked and her parents trusted her. No one was going to laugh at her.
Whenever Diana came home drunk, Marta put her to bed, removing her shoes and tucking her in. Most mornings, the roommates shared coffee, bagels and (Diana) aspirin. Marta regaled Diana with stories about Lydia’s confrontations with her building’s doorman whom she felt did not guard the high rise with sufficient vigilance. She confided in her roommate, lamenting the late night phone calls from her boss who expected her to be on call at all times. In turn, Diana described her latest conquests, providing just enough detail that Marta felt that she, too, had been out on the town. Diana was happy living in New York; Marta still wanted to travel.
A new lady named Rose moved in across the hall. She seemed surprisingly sane, about the same age as Marta’s mother, well-groomed if a little bit mousy. In the elevator, she had overheard that it was Marta’s birthday and one evening she knocked on their door holding a package wrapped in birthday paper, a pretty peach-colored blouse in a lacy style more suited to a young girl than Marta. Over an Entenmann’s birthday cake, Rose chatted with the girls about their life in New York. When Diana inevitably left for a rendezvous, Rose urged Marta to be a role model for Diana who she feared was going astray. Marta recommended that Rose avoid the shared bathroom at night.
The Lotus Company imported delicate ceramics from China, replicas of museum-quality pottery made for the Imperial Court. Lydia resold goods to high-end department stores in Manhattan. Her profit margin was enormous. Twice each year, Lydia traveled to the Mainland to visit the factories where her goods were made. Over time, she had developed rapport with the factory owners who were impressed by her size and obvious wealth. She named her price and never budged. Marta admired her boss’s business acumen. She enrolled in a night class in Mandarin to learn the art of haggling. Since math and language used the same centers in the brain, she was optimistic.
It fell to Marta to make the reservations for Lydia’s trips and to keep the business going when her boss was away. Learning Chinese was a great help. She began to address the Chinese suppliers by name. In Lydia’s absence, Marta became friendly with the Lotus Company’s auditor, a young accountant who was eager to please. After work, the two of them walked to the subway station and commiserated about the frustrations of working for Lydia. Alan asked her out but she turned him down.
After one of her business trips, Lydia gave Marta a set of fragile blue and white vases, a “reward” for all her effort. Marta placed them in the window sill of her room, facing Third Avenue. Their fragile elegance only emphasized the shabbiness of the room’s decor. Marta wanted more.
The book about dreams provided another explanation of nakedness. Shame. Are you afraid people will expose you? Marta carefully reviewed the Lotus Company’s books with Alan. She understood his methodology. As long as there were valid invoices, he did not question Lydia’s expenses.
Lydia had promised Marta a trip to China. The bank account that Marta opened would fulfill that promise. The invoices that Marta generated were for expenses that easily could have been valid; the names of the fabricated suppliers were generic and didn’t merit a second glance. She did not feel ashamed. She had listened for hours to Lydia’s accounts of her trips to the Orient. She knew the names and addresses of the luxury hotels where she stayed, the four-star restaurants where she ate. Lydia always traveled first class, a necessity she said for such a long flight.
Marta told Diana that she would be leaving for China soon. Diana had become involved with a married man. She now spent evenings drinking in high end restaurants and was seldom home before 2 a.m. Her married man whisked her away on weekends to Montauk. In less than a year, Diana and Marta had made New York their own. The possibilities, Diana confided, were endless. She truly thought he might leave his wife.
Rose never spoke about her own life or how she had come to live in a woman’s residence in Manhattan but there were always fresh flowers on her nightstand. She called Marta “Dear” and admired her commitment to her job and the long hours she worked, even at night in her room at the residence. Rose was leery of other women in the residence, not trusting them anymore than the girls. She urged Marta to aspire to greater things. “Your boss should pay you more,” she would say, echoing Marta’s own sentiments. Marta would describe Lydia’s harassment of the factory owners who did not make their deadlines, her abuse of delivery boys, and the irrationality of her expectations. Some evenings when Marta’s phone rang off the hook. Rose encouraged her to ignore it; she understood that Marta needed time away from Lydia’s endless, petty demands.
The book said: “It is rare to be proud of being naked in your dreams, but when this occurs it is a very positive symbol.” Marta’s Chinese was coming along. Her teacher congratulated her on her aptitude. She was skimming just the right amount off the business, enough to fill her account steadily without drawing Alan’s attention. Lydia was increasingly dependent on her. Diana’s married lover offered to pay for an apartment for her uptown. Although Marta often missed her roommate, she enjoyed Rose’s companionship. Occasionally she accepted Alan’s invitation to dinner, but never let things get out of control.
“You should sleep with him,” Diana advised her when Marta told her about Alan’s advances. “Make him complicit. He’ll never turn on you then.” They were drinking margaritas to celebrate their one year anniversary in the City. Marta was surprised at her friend’s calculating attitude; she had begun to think of her roommate as shallow.
“Do you think that Rose is married?” Marta wondered out loud. “I wonder what her story is?” Even before the words were out of her mouth, she realized that she was treading on shaky ground. Diana wouldn’t want to talk about wives.
“Who knows,” Diana replied. She preferred to talk about Marta’s frustrations on the job. The success of Jimmy Choo, she pointed out, could be attributed to the Vogue editor, Tamara Mellon, who took his company public. There was always somebody behind a company’s success. Marta appreciated her encouragement. They ordered a second round of margaritas before returning to their room.
Later that night, Marta woke up to howling in the hallway. For a moment, she thought an injured animal had somehow made its way into the building. Instead, she realized, someone was weeping inconsolably outside their door. Occasionally she could make out words amid the sobs: “Don’t leave me.” “Hold me,” and saddest of all “I’m so sorry.” Diana tiptoed to the peephole to see which wacko had lost it tonight.
“It’s Rose,” she reported in a theatrical whisper. “She’s huddled outside our door, stark naked.”
Marta pulled a blanket around her and joined her roommate at the door. Sure enough, Rose had assumed a fetal position on the flower-patterned carpet. Her jagged inhales fueled eerie wails of utter desperation. The pale specter of her body seemed never to have seen the sun.
“Shouldn’t we help her?” she asked.
Diana was already calling 911. “Can you send someone up to the fifth floor, room 511, please?” Marta did not try to stop her. After all, what could they do?
“I’ll miss you, sweet child,” Rose sobbed when the EMTs arrived. Marta could not tell whether she looked towards their door as the medics pulled her away.
Like the other guests at the residence, they remained behind closed doors. Marta would never know if the spectators laughed as Rose was sedated, wrapped in a hospital blanket and carted away, never to return. Although it was clear that Rose was unstable, Marta wondered if Diana thought then of her married man, his wife abandoned, and the pain she might be causing.
The book concluded that the reasons for being naked in a dream included: fear of being exposed. Of course, being barefoot was far from being naked, Marta told herself. She almost never dreamed of leaving home without some sort of clothing. In general, she slept just fine. It was just shoes she sometimes forgot.
Marta was not one to judge Diana’s choices. But she did not follow Diana’s recommendation that she sleep with Alan. She had her eye on the bottom line. Nevertheless, Marta found it harder and harder to sleep at night. She began to fear that she would be discovered. She dreaded running into the other ladies on their floor. She questioned her ability to assess sanity. At night she dreamed that she walked along 2nd Avenue barefoot among a crush of business men. She feared what else might be missing if she looked down, her white body on display for all to see. The vision of Rose huddled in front of their door haunted her.
Diana laughed off Rose’s meltdown. Just another crazy lady. Marta no longer felt comfortable confiding in her roommate. As a result, she often felt lonely, out of place. The scuffed black flats were the least of it.
“Be good to yourself,” Diana said to her the day she announced that she was making the move uptown. “It’s time to move on. I’ll keep you posted,” she promised, the exact words that Tamara Mellon tweeted the day that she resigned.
When Tamara Mellon left Jimmy Choo, the shoe company she helped to build, she reportedly received a payout of roughly $135 million. According to the New York Times, she left without explanation.
Marta, too, was getting ready to make her move.
The morning of her flight, she dressed carefully, checking twice to be sure that every item of clothing was in place, underwear, bra, blouse, skirt. She wore opaque tights and her scuffed black pumps. Everything was as it should be. She settled the bill at the residence and left with a light heart.
Unlike Rose, she left on her own volition, head held high. Following Lydia’s advice, she flew first class.
KATHRYN HOLZMAN attended Stanford and NYU. She co-ran Backroom Readings, a popular poetry reading in Manhattan. She has published poetry in Imprint Journal out of Hong Kong, Pacific Poetry and Fiction Review, Wellspring Magazine, and Chunga Review. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Zodiac Review, Cowboy Jamboree, the Atticus Review, Calliope Magazine, and JunoEsq.