STOKKETE / DREAMSTIME
In my final year of college, I lived alone on the fifth story of an apartment building in suburban New York. The building, a pre-war brick monstrosity, exuded no particular warmth. It had linoleum-tiled hallways, a broken elevator, and smelled always like a combination of soup and cleaning product. The apartment’s main selling point is that it sat catty-corner to my school’s campus, and was an easy walk away from the library where I spent the majority of my time.
My neighbors, on one side, were a toxically embroiled couple that spent their time blasting country music when they were not fighting. On the other side was a middle-aged gentleman whose name I now can’t recall, who dressed in well-tailored suits and made very little noise. What I knew of him I learned from brief, neighborly conversations that we shared when we ran into each other in the hall: He’d been a male model in the eighties and had once fronted GQ magazine, but was now a teacher. He still had many friends in the city but preferred the quieter life of the suburbs.
One day in the spring, a few weeks before graduation, my neighbor knocked on my door. He told me he had a friend with whom he would connect me, a documentary filmmaker who might be able to offer me work. This struck me as a little odd, considering that my neighbor had no knowledge of my interests or academics, but I appreciated the gesture. Working for a documentarian sounded better than any of the underpaid social media-related internships for which I’d applied.
I met the filmmaker, whom I’ll call William, a few weeks before school ended. William lived in a spacious home (by New York standards) on the Upper East Side. We met in his living room, which was decorated with a variety of international furniture, antique books, and animal hides. He had white hair, looked to be about 65, and spoke slowly when he offered me tea. There was something vaguely colonial about him, as if he’d just returned from the most stereotypical of safari trips. This impression was confirmed when William told me that his current project was about, as he phrased it, “the majestic Bengal Tiger.” If I were hired, he said, we might go to India.
The interview was highly informal — I provided no resume or references — but he offered me the job. William laid out the basics: I would work from his home office, where I would send emails, compile lists of potential film sponsors, and get $6 lattes from a coffee shop down the street. I would sometimes sit beside him, silently, in meetings. I did my best at these tasks, though they hardly constituted a full day of work. There were few incoming emails, and the sponsors he suggested that I research seemed either too obvious (a famous heiress) or oblique (an old friend he hadn’t heard from in years.)
That my work for William might be secondary to my status, as a fresh-faced young woman with recent credentials from a competitive school, occurred to me, but I pushed the thought aside. I was trying to get settled in the city and needed the income, as slight as it was.
William, for his part, seemed enthusiastic about my presence. He would fill the dull hours by asking me a series of personal questions, such as “Do you consider yourself a happy person?” that I tried to answer as politely as possible. When I did not provide as in-depth an answer as he was searching for, he would laugh and say, “I can tell you are afraid of me.” I never knew how to respond to this. I was not afraid of him, exactly, but he did make me nervous in a way I couldn’t place.
A few weeks into this routine, William announced that we would take a trip to his farm in New Hampshire. We drove a scenic route up to the residence, which he announced had been in his family for 10 generations. His son, whom he described as a ne’er-do-well, now lived on the property, where the son bred and raised large dogs. William told me on the drive up that this wasn’t really a work trip — instead, we would go canoeing, cook dinner, and look at the stars.
As we prepared for dinner the first night (grilled swordfish, which William told me he considered “a lesser meal,” whatever that meant), the filmmaker continued to probe me on my apparently antisocial behavior. “You must be afraid of me,” he repeated.
“You know,” he continued, “that you are a very beautiful woman. But I would never do anything to jeopardize our professional relationship.” I’m sure he meant this to be reassuring, but it did little to assuage my discomfort. I wanted to ask, but didn’t, to what professional relationship he was referring.
Later that night, he invited me to sit on his porch and share a blanket with him while we drank wine. I sat at a polite distance and didn’t touch the wine. The next morning, I fabricated a reason to return to the city and to my crowded Brooklyn apartment. Twenty-four hours after that, I called William to tell him I would no longer be able to work for him. He accepted my excuse graciously.
It is funny to me now to think how terrified I was of quitting. I didn’t fear destitution so much as disappointing this man to whom I owed nothing. But if it was a choice between an unknown future and wasting my days as a pedigreed companion, I knew which I preferred. Perhaps if I’d been a few years older, I might have been honest with him: I would rather wash dishes than be paid to be a pretty face.
I occasionally Google William to see if his films, especially the one about India, were ever made. I’ve found no evidence that they, or any other projects, have come out of that Upper East Side apartment. I’ve still never been to India, or seen a Bengal Tiger. I hope to someday go, but I know that if I do, it will have to be on my own terms.