Little Fires Everywhere (24 page)

She was so focused on her work that, on the afternoon in March when the man with the briefcase began staring at her, she did not notice right away. It was midafternoon when she got on at Houston Street, heading up to her job near Columbia, and the 1 was quiet, with only a handful of passengers. Mia was thinking about her project for Pauline—
Document a transformation over time
—when she felt the sudden prickle on her skin that meant she was being watched. Mia was used to stares—this was New York, after all—and like all women she had learned to ignore them, as well as the catcalls that sometimes accompanied them. But this man she couldn't quite read. He seemed respectable enough: neat striped suit, dark hair, briefcase between his feet. Wall Street, she guessed. The look in his eyes wasn't lust, or even playfulness. It was something else—a strange mix of recognition and hunger—and it unsettled her. After three stops, when the man had not stopped staring, she bundled up her things and stepped off at Columbus Circle.

At first she thought she had lost him. The train pulled away and she settled herself onto a grimy bench to await the next one and then, as the handful of passengers cleared the station, she saw him again: briefcase in hand now, scanning the platform. Looking for her, she was sure. Before he spotted her she turned and made for the staircase at the far end of the platform and followed the tunnel, walking as briskly as she could without attracting attention, to the platform for the C. She would be late for work now, but it didn't matter. She would get off in a stop or two and walk over
to Broadway and catch the right train, once she had gotten away, even if it meant paying another fare.

When the C came, Mia stepped onto a middle car and scanned the seats. The car was half full, enough people that she could call for help if she needed, but not so full that the crowd would hide anything untoward. She settled herself into an empty seat in the center. At 72nd Street there was no sign of him. But at 81st, just as Mia rose to leave, the door at the end of the car opened and in came the man with the briefcase. He was slightly disheveled now, a few locks of his hair falling into his face, as if he had been hurrying through the cars looking for her. Her eyes met his and there was no way to pretend she hadn't seen him. Mia's roommate had been mugged twice walking home late at night, and her classmate Becca had told her a man had pulled her into an alley off Christopher Street by her ponytail—she'd managed to fight him off, but he had pulled out a hank of her hair. Mia had seen the bald spot. Whatever was going to happen would happen now, whether she stayed on the train or off.

She stepped off the train and he followed her, and when the doors closed they stood frozen on the platform for a moment. There was no conductor or policeman in sight, only an old lady with a walker slowly trudging toward the stairs and, at the far end of the platform, a sleeping bum in tattered sneakers. If she ran, she thought, perhaps she could make it to the stairs before he caught her.

“Wait,” the man called as the train began to pull away. “I just want to talk to you. Please.” He stopped and held up his hands. Now she could see that he was younger than she'd thought, perhaps only in his thirties, and thinner, too. His suit, she could see, was expensive, fine silver thread running through the wool, and his shoes were, too: cordovan with tassels and smooth leather soles. Not the shoes of a man who ran.

“Please,” the man went on. “I'm sorry I followed you. I'm sorry I was
staring at you. You must have thought—” He shook his head. “I don't like my wife riding the subway because I worry she'll get followed by someone just like that.”

“What do you want?” Mia croaked. She had not realized how dry her throat was. Behind her back, she tightened her grip on her keys, points out.
It doesn't look like much, but it'll hurt,
Becca had told her.

“Let me explain,” the man said. “I'll stand right here. I won't come any closer. I just needed to talk to you.” He put his briefcase down at his feet, between them, and Mia relaxed an infinitesimal amount. If he tried to lunge at her now, it would trip him.

His name was Joseph Ryan—“Joey,” he'd corrected himself—and he worked, as she'd guessed, on Wall Street: he'd rattled off a string of names that she recognized as one of the big trading firms. He and his wife lived over on Riverside Drive; he was headed home now; they'd been married for nine years; they'd met as high school sweethearts; they didn't have any children. “We can't,” Joseph Ryan explained. “She can't have children. And—” He stopped and looked at Mia beseechingly, ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath, with the air of a man who knows he is about to utter something preposterous. “We've been looking for someone to carry a baby for us. The right person.” And then: “We would pay her. Generously.”

Mia's head spun. She dug the points of her keys into the heel of  her hand—not for protection now, but to convince her that what she was hearing was real. “You want—” she managed at last. “Why me?”

Joseph Ryan fumbled in his pocket and produced a business card, and after a brief hesitation, Mia took a single step forward and stretched her arm to take it. “Please. Will you just come and talk with us? Tomorrow? At lunch? Our treat, of course.”

Mia shook her head. “I have to work,” she said. “I can't—”

“Dinner, then. My wife and I can explain everything to you. Look—the Four Seasons. Seven o'clock? At the very least, I promise you'll get a good meal.” He bobbed his head like a shy schoolboy and picked up his briefcase. “If you don't show up, I'll understand,” he said. “I can't imagine—having someone suggest this to you. On a subway platform.” He shook his head. “But please—just think about it. You would help us so much. You would change our lives.” And then he turned away and went up the staircase, leaving Mia standing on the platform, holding the card in her fingertips.

For the rest of her life Mia would wonder what her life would have been like if she had not gone to the restaurant that day. At the time it seemed like a lark: just a way to satisfy her curiosity, and get a nice meal in the bargain. Later, of course, she would realize it had changed everything forever.

That evening she stepped from 52nd Street into the lobby of the Four Seasons, in the only nice dress she owned: one she'd worn to her cousin Debbie's wedding the year before. She'd grown since then, so the dress was a bit too short and a bit too tight, and even if it had fit it would have been worlds of style away from this plush lobby, with its huge chandelier and its dense carpet and its jungle of potted plants. Even the air seemed lush and thick here, like velvet, swallowing up the click-click of ladies' heels and the chatter of men in suits, so that they passed as silently as gliding ships. Joseph Ryan had not told her where to meet them, so she stood awkwardly to one side, pretending to admire the painting that covered one of the lobby's enormous walls, trying to avoid the attention of the maître d', who floated around the entrance of the dining room like a solicitous specter.

Five minutes, she thought, and if they didn't come, she would go home. She had forgotten to wear a watch, so she began to count slowly, as she and Warren had as children playing hide-and-seek. She would count to three hundred, and then she would go home and forget this crazy thing had ever happened. And then, just as she reached a hundred and ninety-eight, Joseph Ryan appeared at her elbow, like a waiter.

“Picasso,” he said.


“The tapestry.” Here in the lobby he seemed almost bashful, and she had almost forgotten the menace she'd felt the day before. “Well, not a tapestry per se, I guess. He painted it on a curtain. They asked him for a painting, but he didn't have time to make one, so he gave them this instead. I've always admired it.”

“I thought you were bringing your wife,” Mia said.

“She's at the table.” He made as if to take her arm, then thought better of it and put his hands into his jacket pockets instead. It was almost comical, his gentlemanliness, she thought as she followed him down the hallway.

A huge white room with—she blinked—a jade-green pool in the center. Trees inside, studded with pink blossoms and starred with lights. Like a fairy forest hidden in the center of a New York office building. All around the soft hum of conversation. A scrim of fine chains lacing the window, rippling like waves though there was no breeze. And then the strange thing happened. As they came into the dining room and Joseph Ryan approached the table in the corner, Mia saw herself somehow already sitting at the table, in a neat navy dress, a cocktail in her hand. For a moment Mia thought she was approaching a mirror, and she paused, confused. And then the woman at the table stood up and reached across to take Mia's hand.

“I'm Madeline,” she said, and Mia had the uncanny sensation, as their hands met, of touching her reflection in a pool.

The rest of the evening unfolded as if some kind of dream. Every time she looked at Madeline Ryan she saw herself; they shared not just the curly dark hair and similar features but some of the same mannerisms: the same tendency to bite their bottom lips, the same absent habit of pulling one curl down, like a spring, to their earlobes and letting it bounce back up. They were not identical—Madeline's chin was a bit more pointed, her nose a little thinner, her voice deeper, richer, almost throaty—but they looked so similar they could have been mistaken for sisters. Late that night, long after the taxi the Ryans had summoned had dropped her back at home, Mia sat awake, thinking over all she'd heard.

How Madeline, at seventeen, had still not gotten her period, and how the doctor had then examined her and discovered that she had no uterus. One in five thousand women, Madeline had explained—there was a long German name for it, Mayer-something syndrome, which Mia had not fully caught. How the only way for them to have a child was a surrogate. This was 1981, and three years before headlines had trumpeted the arrival of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, but the odds of such a birth were still poor, and most people still viewed brewing babies in petri dishes as suspicious. “Not for us,” Madeline had said, twisting the stem of the wineglass between her elegant fingers. “No Frankenbabies, no thank you.” Instead, the Ryans had decided to take a more old-fashioned route: as old, Joseph pointed out, as the Bible. Sperm from the father, egg from—and carried by—a woman who seemed a suitable match. They had been advertising for months—discreetly, Madeline added—for a surrogate with the right characteristics, and had found no one. And then
Joseph Ryan, riding the subway from a lunch meeting, had spotted an eerily familiar face at the other end of the car, and it had felt like fate.

“We see it,” he said, “as an opportunity for us to do each other some mutual good.” He and Madeline glanced at each other, and Madeline gave him the merest nod of the head, and they both sat up a little straighter and turned to Mia, who set her fork down.

“Don't think that we're entering into this lightly,” Madeline said. “We've been thinking about this for a long time. And we've been looking for just the right woman.” She tipped the carafe of water and refilled Mia's glass. “We think that woman is you.”

In her room now, Mia did calculations. Ten thousand dollars, they had offered, to carry a healthy baby for them. They had said this to her as if outlining the terms of a job offer, laying out the benefits package in the most attractive way. “And of course we'd pay for all your medical expenses,” Joseph had added.

At the end of dinner, Joseph had slid a folded sheet of paper across the table. “Our home number,” he said. “Think it over. We'll draw up a contract for you to look over. We hope you'll call us.” He had already paid the bill, which Mia had not seen but knew must be appallingly high: they'd had oysters and wine; a tuxedoed man had prepared steak tartare at their table, deftly folding the golden yolk into the ruby-red meat. Joseph hailed Mia a taxi. “We hope you'll call,” he said again. Behind him, behind the glass window of the lobby, Madeline buttoned the fur collar of her coat. Only after he had shut the door, and the taxi was on its way back downtown to Mia's cramped apartment, did she unfold the paper to see that astonishing figure again:
And below it, a single word:

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