Another couple is tottering on, behind them. “There’s always room for more!” they say, squeezing in sideways. We were past occupancy three large bodies ago. The door is closing. We are sardines standing on our tails in black tie. I can smell hair. My husband and I are pressed in the corner. Judith Miller: General Petraeus, how do you sustain your joie de vivre when things run amok? The door opens again. A woman who could be a stand-in for a medi- eval pageboy in tights and velvet flats gets on with her husband whose head is red from laughter. “ All aboard!” they say giggling. The door closes for the final time. The elevator revs. I feel it drop in the stuttered motion of a ball bouncing down a flight of steps. My husband puts his mouth on my ear, “Seventeen.” Seventeen civilians , I confirm. The plaque on the wall says Maximum Occupancy 10 . I can barely bend my neck forward but I glance down and see a stale pedicure through my black lace shoes. We are bumping down. I watch the screen, 17, 16, 15…3, 2, 1, and we bump past L. We are below L in a place I am certain is the Waldorf basement with extra- long-tailed rats smart enough to camouflage. But we are not in the basement. We are stuck in a place that has no stops. We are in between floors. The doors will not open. We all will make mistakes. #5. General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living . And I don’t have my phone to call my children because it wouldn’t fit in my evening bag. I think of them in their surroundings, their faces, so unaware of their parents in a human trap. I feel a wad in my chest. It’s inflating like a defective airbag pressing on my heart. I long to be at “Gigi’s Resort” where there are no elevators, just a short stairway to the second floor so close to the grove you can reach out and grab an orange. We stand in silence. The staid expressions of our companions reveal they don’t realize we are not moving. My husband is tugging on his col- lar and the first to say, “Press the emergency button.” In this moment I develop powers. I see the vintage poster that covers a small wall at our apartment, an advertisement for French paint, Nitrolian . A man is painting a flight of steps bright red and the paint is drying so fast a woman is able to walk down the steps as he paints just one step ahead of her foot. I summon him from within to come paint us out. But he ignores me and keeps at his work in Paris with a can of Nitrolian in his hand and that cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Then I look into tomorrow and see the chef from Greenwich rolling out the pastry for the lemon tartlettes remembering her tablemates, in sympathy, at an event she really didn’t want to be at. I hear a voice coming through to us. “How many of you are in there?” My husband is yelling back to the buzzer that has taken on a wooden face with holes embedded in it like pockmarks. A leader needs to give energy; don’t be an oxygen thief . #3. General Da- vid Petraeus’s Rules for Living . I’m looking up at the service hatch where we will climb out while risking electrocution or being crushed to death. My husband and I will help these people; some are frail. I have always had a lot of strength in my arms and I wonder if this is why. When the top opens there will be air. The wad in my chest is wiggling into my throat like insulation. “We are going to try and bring this up again, people,” the voice says. The elevator starts to rise in a dead lift. We pass one floor. It imme- diately halts. We are in the middle of nowhere again. If only we could have the arm of Hercules I think, recalling stories I told to my son when he was a toddler.
I feel rocket ship hydraulics under my feet without the juice. We are being lifted to the next floor, and the next, in a tedious ascent. Finally, we reach the 18 th floor where we started. Almost. The elevator nudges itself up, a little more, then a little more because we are too heavy to go down. Finally, we are level to the 18 th floor. The doors open. The cool air hits us and I realize I am sweating. I want to scramble but I am still plastered in the back. My husband and I are holding hands. We are only a few steps to safety, but the nucleus, those that got on when we were already at max, and the woman with the pageboy, doesn’t move. I envy the crowd out there milling in normalcy. I hear Jeanine Pirro’s voice. I see news anchors. I have questions for Tom Wolfe. Before I would have only seen Republicans, but now I don’t care. Be humble. The people you’ll be leading already have on the ground conflict experience. ‘ Listen and learn. ’ #6. General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living . “Excuse me,” I say to the elderly woman trying to pass her, “Can I I ENVY THE CROWD OUT THERE MILLING IN NORMALCY. I HEAR JEANINE PIRRO’S VOICE. I SEE NEWS ANCHORS. I HAVE QUESTIONS FOR TOM WOLFE. BEFORE I WOULD HAVE ONLY SEEN REPUBLICANS, BUT NOW I DON’T CARE. help you?” I sense the doors are getting ready to shut over the bound- ary line. I think of the phrase timing is everything and how fitting it is for me and especially for the General. The elevator will drop. I will be stuck again. I inhale and exhale deeply until I’m in my usual breathing rhythm, the one unnoticeable to me. I will pick this lady up and carry her out if I have to. Lead by example from the front of the formation . #1. General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living . The woman is staring at me, studying my face. There is recognition. Have I seen her before this night? It’s as if her image has been peeled off a fresco. The flat face. A thin fur hat in the shape of a head wreath. The scent of citrus. I tell her “we are safe.” She cannot hear me. She cannot hear anything. I lead her by the arm. I look for her hearing aid but her hair stylishly covers her ears. I nod to my husband to go on. I walk with her slowly out of the elevator. In her hands dressed in black satin gloves she is clutching a small orange. I know where I have seen her before.
Maureen Pilkington is a writer from Rye, N.Y., currently working on a novel set in Provence and Manhattan.
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