The Thing About Sophia

Shelly Oria


The Open Bar is thrilled to publish an exclusive short story from Shelly Oria’s debut collection New York 1, Tel Aviv 0

To dive further into Shelly Oria’s world be sure to click over to Fiction Writers Review for an interview between the author and Laura van den Berg.



Saturdays we’d have brunch at Curly’s. Sophia said Definitely Curly’s, no brunch in the city better than Curly’s and no neighborhood better than the East Village on a Saturday morning. She said morning but really she meant afternoon.

At Curly’s they serve brunch till four p.m. on Satur­days. Anything you want done vegan you can get, and if you asked Sophia that’s just the way the world should be. We always got too much food, but too much food on purpose is different from too much food by mistake; when there’s no miscalculation involved, too much food is simply called supper, or sometimes indoor- brunch for Sunday. Also at Curly’s, they give you a brunch drink for free with every brunch entrée ordered. Also tea. If you say you don’t like tea and can you please get two drinks instead, sometimes they say yes, sometimes no.

One of the things about Sophia: she asks questions, the world says yes. Two of the waitresses became her friends, a third fell in love. So Saturdays at Curly’s, usually we got buzzed, and fake bacon never tasted better.

What happens when you get buzzed but you’re already a little bit buzzed from the night before is that you feel free. So Saturdays at Curly’s was the time of the week when I would say things to Sophia like I love you so much, You are the best roommate anyone could ask for, and the worst: I hope we’ll be like this forever. Kir in hand, Sophia would laugh every time, finger my cheekbones (both sides, slowly), and say, Booney-Boo, you know there’s no such thing as forever.


Even though microwave-heated Curly’s huevos rancheros is nothing like the original, brunching with Sophia on our living- room floor (we only got a coffee table two weeks be­fore I moved out) was my favorite Sunday activity. I’d get the blue-yellow blanket from the bedroom and we’d call it Indoor Picnic.

But not every Sunday was Indoor Picnic Sunday. Some Sundays Sophia would wake up in the morning and, after brushing her teeth and before getting coffee, say, I  can’t be domesticated today. I knew better than to show disappoint­ment, because show Sophia that you’re disappointed and you can count on being alone for a week. So I’d say, Cool, what’d you have in mind? because that was my way of saying maybe we can do something undomesticated together. But when Sophia wanted to feel undomesticated it usually meant she needed time away from me, so she’d say, Oh, you know I can’t think before my first cup of coff ee.

A good time to explain about the bedroom: when I first moved in, the two rooms  were both called bedrooms, and the rest of the apartment was a space we shared. Then one Sunday morning Sophia said, Let’s make the small room a recording studio. Sophia was buying another guitar then and all kinds of expensive equipment, and I was mostly sleeping in her room anyway, so it seemed sensible. She said, If I have a studio I’ll have to get serious. I thought she was already plenty serious about her music, but Sophia was always looking for ways to get serious about things, and if you said anything back that sounded like advice, all of a sud­den you  were her enemy. Then you needed to make it up to her, and that wasn’t always easy, so the best way was to say, That’s a great idea, I said, That’s a great idea and that’s how Sophia’s bedroom became our bedroom and my room be­came her studio.

Another thing that sometimes happened on Sundays was End of Weekend Blues. That was especially common on Indoor Picnic Sundays: when Sophia looked outside and the window said evening, she would all of a sudden get antsy, like she was waiting for someone to arrive. I had to be care­ful, because when she got like that saying the wrong thing was something that could creep up on you. One minute there would be peacefulness, the next you  were fighting with Sophia and you felt like she hated you, because Sophia doesn’t know how to fight with the future in mind. Sophia fights like Sophia cooks like Sophia makes love like So­phia plays the guitar: as though possibly it’s the last thing she’ll ever do. Her eyes get so red there is no green left in them. Her lips get tight and lose their heart shape com­pletely. She screams without stopping for air, and even if it’s a day before a show, she forgets she is supposed to watch her voice. I know the reason: this is also a show, and it is no less important to her than any other. But when someone is throwing loud, hurtful words at you, your heart  doesn’t care about reasons. Sometimes she throws things, too.


Monday was Sophia’s Errands Day. Sophia’s definition for errands is Anything you hate to do, and her theory is it should all be compressed to one day or you end up believing your life sucks. So, for example, grocery shopping is not an errand, but calling her aunt Zelda is. If Sophia has a toothache and the receptionist says Thursday one week from today, Sophia will say Give me the next available Monday, because going to the dentist is an errand, and errands are done on Mon­days. And if you tell her it doesn’t make sense to suff er tooth pain longer than you have to, she’ll make a face like she just swallowed something sour and say, Clearly, you don’t know much about artists.

It was a Monday before Sophia meant anything to me, five, maybe six p.m., and I was standing at the door with the suitcases and everything. A while later, when I learned about Sophia’s week, I realized I must have been one of her er­rands that Monday. Interview Lydia’s cousin. The thing about Sophia, she opens the door, you see right away how beauti­ful she is; you see right away it’s the kind of beauty every­one wants to share. I was funny to her then—first thing she did was laugh. I laughed too, because her laughter made me happy, even though I knew it was directed at me and didn’t know why, which is usually unpleasant. Finally she said, Lydia couldn’t have been more right. Lydia is a relative of mine, second-cousin-once-removed sort of relative, and she was the one to say, You go ahead and move to the city and you’ll see things will just work out. She gave me Sophia’s number, and on the phone Sophia gave me the address and said, See you then, so I assumed I was moving in. I didn’t know then that in New York people interview other people to be roommates; I thought you usually went on interviews when you wanted other people to hire you, pay you, not when you wanted to pay them. I packed everything I had—which wasn’t much, because the man I was leaving was the kind who sues if you take stuff— in two suitcases and one huge handbag. I took a cab from Penn Station and told myself the stuff  was simply too heavy, but really I was just afraid of the subway. Then: Sophia, laughing, and I knew right away, though it still took some time to figure out.


Tuesdays Sophia usually spent the day auditioning people for her band. If she liked someone (usually a drummer), that person would be auditioning other people with her the fol­lowing Tuesday, but often by the Tuesday after that they’d be gone; it rarely took Sophia more than a week to discover Disparities in Artistic Visions.

Sophia loved those Tuesdays, and the more people showed up, the happier she was. Really, when you think about it, Sophia was auditioning all the time, not just on Tuesdays; some auditions  were simply more official than others. Sophia ran auditions for friends, for lovers, for people who might cook for her or tell her things she didn’t know. And people just kept showing up, trying their hardest, because that’s the thing about Sophia: she makes you feel like her approval is the one ingredient you’re missing.

Let me explain about the finances, though my knowledge is limited. I shared a bed with Sophia for over a year, and in that year more often than not we appeared to the world as two halves of a thing, but still: what Sophia doesn’t want to discuss she won’t, and good luck to you if you think What’s the harm in just raising the question. So  here’s what I do know: Sophia doesn’t have to work. There is no lavish­ness about her, but she fi rmly believes that needs should be met. If a certain need means money, then money will be spent; but mostly Sophia thinks about money the way most people think of socks—sometimes essential, at other times unnecessary, but either way not an interesting topic for con­versation or thought.

Over time I’ve heard more than one theory about Sophia’s finances, because people think if someone who has money isn’t interested in money there must be something they don’t know, and when people think there’s something they don’t know, they talk. Lydia said a trust fund, and Lydia has known Sophia for years, so possibly that’s right. In fact, that was one of the first things she told me when we talked about my leaving that jerk and moving to New York. She said A friend of mine, said We go way back, and said She’s living off a trust fund that would last her great-grandkids if she ever has any, and she’s pretty generous, so maybe you won’t have to worry about money for a while.

Of course I always worry about money, and living with Sophia didn’t change that at all.

One night, at a party we were throwing, a very tall girl who seemed to know a lot about Sophia said, Babe, I’d be dreading Monday so bad if it weren’t for you, and touched Sophia’s arm, and Sophia smiled and went to the kitchen to get more beer. What’s Monday? I asked the tall girl, because that was before I learned that Sophia’s people often judged you by how much you really knew about Sophia. The tall girl snorted and said, The shoot; once a year she still has to do it or there’ll be no money for pretty girls like you to live off her. I don’t live off her, I said all deadpan, and got up to go help Sophia with the beer; but really I felt happy that she said I was pretty. So that was the second theory I heard.

Then, once, Sophia said, An old friend will be staying with us a couple of nights, and when the old friend arrived she was young and beautiful and Sophia’s ex. Her name was Anna but Sophia called her Honeydew. Sophia rarely called anyone by their given name. For a  whole evening it was Honeydew remember this and Honeydew remember that, and Of course, Sophie, how could I ever forget. I felt unnec­essary, but we were drinking a lot and gradually it got bet­ter. At some point I looked out the window, and even though I squinted I still  couldn’t tell if it was dark or bright, and I couldn’t remember in which room we kept the clock, and I heard Anna giggle and say, Is he still sending you that much every month? and You should really see that stock person I told you about, Sophie, you’re being irresponsible. So that was the third theory I heard about Sophia’s money, except I had no idea what I heard.


On Wednesdays, Sophia was a volunteer. Every few weeks she would choose a new organization, because the thing about Sophia is, she gets bored easily. One sure way to make So­phia smile is find a not-for-profit she hasn’t heard of, be­cause what happens when you volunteer Sophia-style is that you run out of causes.

Here’s why I said if Sophia doesn’t want to discuss some­thing she won’t: the day Anna left was a Wednesday, and I woke Sophia up two hours after we’d gone to bed because she was supposed to be at Cooper Union, selling tickets for a PEN festival event. Sophia said, I’m not going. I looked at her and didn’t know what to say; Sophia was usually very strict about her weekly routine. She said, I’m totally hung over, I need to rest, and the PEN people will be fine with­out me; it’s not a shelter for homeless children with AIDS, you know, so don’t look at me like that. She must have read my surprise as criticism, which couldn’t have been further from the truth; the rigidity of her schedule always made me feel superfluous somehow, and now I was thinking maybe change is possible, maybe from now on Wednesdays will be something new, maybe Anna’s visit is actually a story with a happy ending. I called in sick to the gallery—which I had never done before, because I believed excelling at that job was my best shot at becoming a real New Yorker—and said to Sophia, Maybe we can spend the morning together. I put all the stuff in the blender to make our special hang­over juice, and she made a face but drank it all, which made me hopeful, as if this somehow meant I was wrong to be worried about Anna. In a moment I will ask Sophia, and she’ll laugh and say, Anna? Really? Oh, Booney-Boo, you’re sweet when you’re insecure, and our happy ending will begin.

The thing about Sophia, you  can’t show her jealousy or she’ll remember why she hates commitment and explain it to you until you lock yourself in the bathroom to make her stop. The truth is, in any relationship someone at some point is locked in a bathroom. It isn’t the end of the world. But it is better to be smart, and with Sophia a way to be smart is, when you ask about other people, pretend you’re asking some­thing  else. Say, Anna reminds me of someone but I  can’t figure out who, or, How come Anna isn’t over more often? You two seem really good friends. For it to work Sophia needs to pretend right along with you, though, and that Wednesday the hangover made her too tired for acting; I shouldn’t have brought it up just then, but there was some­thing like an itch in my neck where I feel urgency, and it was not the kind that would go away if I went to the gallery and tried to focus on work.

Sophia said, Boon, I love a lot of people, I share my life with a lot of people, I told you this the very fi rst night. She was being honest, and it scared me, but you don’t start a talk like that and then change your mind. I said, This is diff er­ent, though with Anna, right? I spoke very quietly but it still sounded loud in my head. And childish. Sophia said, Anna is from another life, another time. I nodded. We have a his­tory together, she said, the kind that makes you dependent. Sophia didn’t usually say things like that. She seemed ex­hausted, and for a minute I thought maybe we were together inside her dream. Then she closed her eyes, and I knew that when she woke up she would wonder, at least for a moment, if this conversation truly happened.


Thursday mornings Sophia and I went grocery shopping together, and on the Thursdays when we hosted a party at night, grocery shopping was a thing that took its time. When Sophia first got me the job at the gallery, she said, But you can never work Thursday mornings—that’s when we get food for the week. She was talking to me as a roommate; I’d just moved in. I said But maybe if I work the morning shift we can go in the afternoon, and she said, Tell them you can never work mornings on Thursdays, and don’t say why; it will only make them appreciate you.

Thursday was Sophia’s favorite Party Night, and we usually went out dancing or invited a bunch of people over, who brought music and amplifiers and drugs and called Sophia Gorgeous and Goddess and Sophia Loren. Hey, So­phia Loren, awesome party. At these parties, people often had sex at different locations in our apartment, using things like kitchen supplies as props.

A good time to talk about the sex: we had a lot of it, except at the end, and it was always good, except when it wasn’t. This is when it wasn’t good: on Thursdays, when other peo­ple were in on it, and especially when Sophia was more into them and assumed I had my own interests for the night. I did not, because that’s the thing about Sophia: she gives you the kind of freedom you don’t want.

Before I met Sophia, I never thought of myself as a woman who could be with women this way, and maybe I’m not, maybe it’s only with Sophia. But my sense is, it’s the kind of thing that once you let it in, it is going to play itself out.

When I called Lydia to let her know I was all settled in, as we’d agreed I’d do, she said, Well, has she fucked you yet, and I said, What do you mean, you said she’s a nice and generous person. As I said before, I knew but I did not yet want to know. Lydia said, I’m talking about sex—have you had sex yet, and she sounded tired like I was an assignment she had to complete. I said, No . . . I’m not gay, Lydia, and Lydia said, Right, right. Then she said, Do you know what a rollercoaster is? And I knew she didn’t mean the regular kind so I said no and she said, Why don’t you ask Sophia about that.

I did. I asked Sophia, and she laughed her Lydia laugh­ter, like that first day in the hallway: head tilted all the way back like she was trying to reach the floor, and something liberating like relief emanating from her lungs. We touched each other for the first time that night until the outside looked purple and small butterflies  were flapping their wings against some inner wall I never knew I had. We lay in bed af­ter, me facing the window, where Sophia had the strangest-looking plant; its leaves had a redness to them that made the whole thing look plastic, and I had the urge to touch it and see whether or not it was real, but I  couldn’t reach it. I sat up, wings still fluttering in me, and said to Sophia, I’m not a lesbian, though, and Sophia smiled a new smile and said, Sweet Booney.


For the first few months, every Friday was City Lessons Day. Before I moved in, Friday was something  else, but I never found out what. So Fridays we would take out a map of Manhattan, a subway map, and sometimes maps of other boroughs too. I also had a blue spiral notebook for tips that seemed important. Sophia started this tradition because, one day in the Village, walking east, I asked how much farther we had to walk to hit Central Park. She looked at me then like maybe I’d just turned out to be a mistake. This look had a sting and I thought, when some­one looks at you this way you’ll never get to go with them to their dark places, and all I ever wanted, since that first moment in the hallway, was to be the person Sophia reached for when she cried. I said, I don’t even know how long I’ll live here, so I just don’t bother with the city. So­phia nodded, and I knew I’d said the right thing. I was just starting to learn then how to be a woman who intrigued her. Then she said, But will you let me teach you, Boon? I mean, you do live here for now. I said Maybe. She liked that answer. Then, the following Friday: the maps, the spiral notebook, and Sophia saying, Tip number one, in New York City, if you reach Chinatown you’ve gone too far.


Saturdays we’d have brunch at Curly’s, and, more than any other place and more than any other time, I felt envied at Curly’s, because I was Sophia’s Saturday-morning person, and everyone knows that’s something you  can’t beat.

Once, the waitress was rude to me—the same waitress who was always asking Sophia out. Being rude by way of hitting on the woman you’re with when you’re peeing is dif­ferent from being rude to your face, from saying, No you didn’t say provolone, I’d remember. Sophia said, If you don’t like it here anymore we’ll find somewhere  else, Boon, and I knew then that something was diff erent.

Saturdays at Curly’s we put salt on our curly fries like pow­der. Every time Sophia would say, It’s not good,  we’re dehy­drated as it is, but she said it like you say I know, I know when a friend says something true you don’t want to hear. Be­cause Saturdays at Curly’s we didn’t want to hear that salt is bad for you, that alcohol dries you up, that other women can come on to your woman when you’re looking away, that in love sometimes you blink and when you open your eyes there’s change.

Saturdays at Curly’s it was warm, then cold and then snowing, and always people were waiting outside or by the radiator, and always we didn’t have to wait, because the thing about Sophia is, she  doesn’t like to wait in lines, and mostly the world agrees she shouldn’t have to.

Saturdays at Curly’s we always stayed for hours—long after we were too full, long after we stopped feeling the pain of stretch in our stomachs—and played checkers or drew on white paper mats with crayons. Saturdays at Curly’s I would look at the people crouched over the radiator, being pushed against the small door every time someone entered to add her name to the list, to ask about the wait. Saturdays at Curly’s I felt privileged, and guilty, and sometimes I would look at Sophia and see that she felt neither.

Saturdays at Curly’s, looking at the people outside, some­times this is what I wanted: to be one of them. Saturdays at Curly’s, when Sophia was suddenly flexible about where we brunched, she looked like she was trying on a new dress that didn’t fit her, and it made me sad, like reaching the end of a good novel. The thing about Sophia is, you love someone like her it’s for good, it becomes part of your body, an organ. But Saturdays at Curly’s sometimes I would think, maybe I can take this organ and leave, go to a place where I can wait with the rest of the world by the radiator, feeling the chill of icy wind every time the door opens, because maybe that’s what life is about: waiting your turn.


Shelly Oria was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Israel. Her short story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, is forthcoming from FSG and Random House Canada in November. Shelly’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Quarterly West, and fivechapters among other places, and won the Indiana Review Fiction Prize and a Sozopol Fiction Seminars Fellowship in Bulgaria among other awards. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, curates the series Sweet! Actors Reading Writers in the East Village, has a private practice as a creativity coach, and teaches fiction at Pratt Institute, where she also co-directs the Writers’ Forum.