In my senior year of college, I sublet a one-bedroom shoebox on St. Marks Place and started working weekends at a holdout father-and-son bookstore on the Upper East Side. A squeaky-clean suburban girl worked there weekends too, and that was Carol Wheeler. She was eighteen at the time, younger than me by about four years, in her freshman year at Marymount Manhattan College, her mother’s alma mater. During the school year, Carol lived with her aunt in the East 70s, helping to nanny her two toddler cousins.
I tried dismissively pigeon-holing Carol, but she was resistant. At the most superficial level of “types,” I put her right on the line between bookish nerd and buoyant cheerleader. She was physically small and in her expressive habits a little bit chirpy, but the majority of what came out of her mouth was worth listening to.
Although we belonged to different species, Carol and I got along very well at the store. She had a generous curiosity that transcended social categories, and she wanted to know all sorts of things about my wayward bohemian life. There was never any anthropological cluelessness to her inquiries—she was empathetic and smart—and when I told her my stories, she laughed in the right places.
I gradually discovered that she was one of those rare people who didn’t have to go along to get along. Carol was completely free of the impulse to code-switch, and whether despite that or because of that, she was right at home with pretty much everyone. The secret—and, I think, her defining characteristic—was an absence of darkness. She was the most fundamentally decent human being I had ever met. It fascinated me, Carol’s steadiness—her unshakeable core of decency. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have that core inside me.
In March, the bookstore closed for a long weekend while the owners went to Florida, and I used the time to bunker down in my shoebox, intending to write a semester’s worth of papers in three days. I vowed to myself that I would not drink until Monday came and the papers were all finished—by which I meant I would limit my weekend drinking to one bottle of White Zinfandel per day. A bottle a day wasn’t nearly enough wine to get me drunk, but it would taste good and it would take the edge off, enabling me to sleep when I was done writing.
I bought three bottles on Friday morning and didn’t open the first bottle until Friday after dark. The writing had me absorbed, and it wasn’t overly difficult to stretch the one bottle as I worked into the night.
Saturday came, and I was still making good progress, plowing through my second paper, a lengthy and impassioned defense of Daisy Buchanan. It puzzled me that there existed no definitive pro-Daisy journal essay in the academic literature. It was all a big pile-on of people who took Nick and Gatsby at their word and judged Daisy to be spoiled and selfish and shallow. I thought Daisy had been robbed of self-determination and that she had every right to be furious.
Around one in the morning, as I was finishing up with Daisy, the downstairs buzzer rang. I assumed it was a drug dealer or a panhandler and ignored it. When it went off a second time, I got up and went over to the intercom, cranky about the interruption to my writing flow and ready to tell whomever it was to fuck off.
“What?” I said, holding down the button.
“Michael?” came the response. “Is that you? It’s Carol. Carol Wheeler…” She started speaking very quickly, and it was impossible to understand what she was saying.
“Carol?” I said. “What are you doing here?” I buzzed her in and went partway down the stairs to see what was going on.
She was flailing around helplessly on the first-floor landing, unsure whether to go up or down, backwards or forwards. Could Carol Wheeler be drunk? I found the idea amusing. “Up here!” I shouted, laughing and leaning over the bannister, but that only seemed to disorient her further. I continued down the stairs, and only as I got closer did it begin to dawn on me that she was in real trouble. Her arms were wrapped tightly around the newel post, and she was sobbing. There was no wailing, only a series of disturbingly concussive hiccups, a spasming of the shoulders, and her wet face streaked with makeup watching me approach.
I helped her upstairs and settled her on the sofa with some Kleenex. While she blew her nose and wiped the mess off her face, I went into the kitchenette and put the kettle on. Carol asked if she could use the bathroom and stayed in there for a long time. I brought the tea out to the living room—two mugs of Tension Tamer with honey—and waited, switching on the TV with the volume very low. When Carol came back out, she removed her shoes and curled into the far corner of the sofa clutching a pillow to her stomach and tucking her stockinged feet beneath her bum. I pointed out her tea cup on the coffee table, and she picked it up, letting the pillow fall to her side. She brought the tea to her mouth with both hands, blew off a cloud of steam, and took a sip.
“I feel awful about ruining your evening,” she said, staring into the tea. “I promise I’ll leave after this.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said.
“I feel like an idiot,” she said.
“You want to tell me what happened?”
Carol and some of her girlfriends from Marymount had gone bar-hopping downtown and ended up very drunk in some over-crowded Ludlow Street dive where a scary group of stockbrokers started hitting on them—fake-playfully at first, then relentlessly and aggressively. What happened next wasn’t clear, but somehow Carol got separated from her friends and found herself trapped in a booth with one guy who managed to take possession of her wallet so she couldn’t leave. He kept buying drinks and forcing her to drink them in front of him. After a couple of rounds, he started touching her, and, wasted as she was, Carol knew something truly terrible would happen if she didn’t act soon.
Carol begged for permission to go to the bathroom. The stockbroker allowed this, holding Carol’s wallet up in the air and just out of reach as a reminder. She squeezed through the crowd feeling his eyes on her back and pulled the bathroom door shut behind her with relief. Locking herself in the stall, Carol sat down and, head swimming, forced herself to think.
She realized that she would just have to let the wallet go. That was okay. What could a wallet possibly contain that was worth the risk of rape or worse? She didn’t care about her money, her credit cards, her college I.D., her fake New York drivers license, or her real New Hampshire drivers license. She felt a little nauseous when she thought about the vile stockbroker looking at the photos she carried of her parents and her two little cousins. But what could she do about that?
The real question was how she was going to get from the ladies room, at the very back of the bar, to the front door without being seen by her captor. It was at least 50 feet. She searched frantically for something in the stall or around the sink that she could use to disguise herself, and she acknowledged the impossibility of trying to squeeze through the bathroom’s tiny barred window.
Drunker than she had ever been in her life, exhausted, afraid, and unable to imagine any way out of her predicament, Carol fell to her knees on the filthy tile floor and began to weep. As she wept, the tiles on the floor rose up and began to float before her eyes like stars; simultaneously, she had the sensation that she was sinking down through the tiles like quicksand. “I am one with the floor,” Carol said aloud, and in the sound of her own voice she heard the solution she had been seeking.
Looking out on a dense, dark forest of fishnet, denim, wool, and khaki, Carol left the bathroom on her hands and knees. As quickly as she could, she crawled towards the exit through and around the bar patrons’ legs. She crept across people’s shoes and boots, through mysterious puddles, over cigarette butts, empty bottles, broken glass, loose change, burnt matches, and spat gum. She got stepped on a couple of times and attracted a few jaded stares and head pats, but finally she made it to the front door, where she stood up without looking back at the booth and ran like hell out onto the street.
She continued running across Houston St. and up First Ave. when she realized she wasn’t being followed and stopped to catch her breath. She didn’t have her wallet and she didn’t even have a quarter to make a phone call. She tried desperately to think of someone she could ask for help, and the only person she knew in the neighborhood was me.
I got some blankets from the top of the closet and tucked her in on the sofa. We watched an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show together while sipping at our tea. Carol fell asleep before it was over, and I went to crash in the bedroom. In the morning I took her out to Teresa’s for some kielbasa and eggs and her first-ever pierogi, then gave her a five dollar bill and two tokens and walked her to the subway. As we stood ready to part in front of the kiosk at Astor Place, Carol surged suddenly forward and gave me one of those too long, too strong hugs. She looked up and said, “You saved my life last night. I will never forget it.”
I walked back to the apartment feeling depressed about how little effort it had taken on my part to earn Carol’s undying gratitude. Essentially, I had done nothing but answer the doorbell. Was the world really so shitty to women that the bar to heroism could be set so low? Sure, it had felt natural and right to offer Carol kindness and hospitality when she was so clearly in distress, but it was just dumb luck that she had come upon me sober and, despite the fact that she wasn’t really my type, that I hadn’t made at least some kind of rote attempt to lure her into my bed.
Philip Shelley's work has been featured in publications including Words & Images and Pitchfork, and in the anthology Ungatherable Things. He was the guitarist for influential all-teenage NYC art-pop band Student Teachers (recently the subject of KCRW’s “Lost Notes” podcast). His story "Willett" received the 2013 Andre Dubus Award for short fiction. He is the consulting editor of Whiskey Tit Journal.