Bright Lights, New Century

by Robert Yune


The gargoyles on the roof hoist overflowing bowls above their heads, transforming the drizzle into a whimsical blessing. To your driver, though, it’s just dirty water soaking through a long evening. He closes the Town Car’s door behind you and makes a point of not following your gaze up the building. “Congratulations on whatever it is, boss,” he calls out in a vaguely suspicious tone. “Ma’am,” he says, helping your fiancée out of the car.

She follows you up the limestone steps. It’s not a Masonic Temple, but it could play one in a movie. One does not enter such a building—one beholds, even after stepping inside. It’s an impressive gala you’re joining, all these polite colors and sounds coalescing in the lobby. You’d been too distracted by the spectacle of the building to hold the entryway door for your fiancée, but you grab the lobby door’s handle just in time and are rewarded with the flash of a smile as she slides past, her heavy peacoat brushing your arm.

Although Manhattan is crowded with these ancient stone buildings, you’d never thought to set foot inside. No one under seventy has. There’s a shimmer to the air, like radio waves percolating jazz, as you pass through the lobby.

Is this an opera house? A concert hall or museum? The lobby expands in understated, worn tiling—as your dress shoes click dully upon it, it feels like you’re treading on history itself. Nevermind the tiles, though—this whole room was crafted to draw one’s eyes upward, past marble columns and gold-leafed arches to the gaslight blaze of the chandeliers.

One thinks of a cake whose sole purpose is to flaunt its icing: intricate, frost-white, glittering.

Once upon a time, reverence was an organizing principle, the force that pulled together all this marble and limestone, fastened them to this particular quadrant of the city. The string quartet, too, was drawn here and neatly assembled, as were the waitstaff in their shiny tuxedos, the sterling chafing dishes—and you, outfitted in a tux that mostly fits.

It’s not just reverence, though: the room is steeped in optimism, from the carved ivy on the balustrades to the murals, crowded with cherubs and nymphs. The room is a self-fulfilling prophecy about Western Civilization, a boast penned by the invisible hand of destiny. In this room, there is no space for reflection or doubt, and you’re not sure where to place your discomfort. Your collar isn’t exactly strangling you, but have you really gained this much weight in your neck?

The balconies offer breathing room and solitude, but they don’t seem worth the climb. Through the window, you glimpse a pedestrian on the street outside cupping her hand around a cigarette. A spark illuminates her face in profile. It’s poor form to seek an exit this early in the evening, anyway: a fire escape, a staff entrance, a vestibule. They’re probably crowded with waitstaff anyway, even in the rain.

“You’ve come a long way, baby.” It’s a weird slogan, honestly, especially for cigarettes, and it’s weird that it just popped into your head. Joe Camel, right? Somewhere in your subconscious, a camel poses next to a palm tree. He’s wearing sunglasses and giving a thumbs-up. No, your fiancée tells you. Virginia Slims. You’re willing to set aside the slogan’s condescending tone, baby, because feminism doesn’t really exist in a room like this. Also, the occasion for the slogan seems obvious now, since the point of this evening is you. An award is waiting in the shape of a rough-hewn crystal shard.

It is worth considering how far you’ve come. Your career as a writer peaked in the eighties, but it didn’t feel like a decade back then, not so much a bracketed period of time but rather a series of events you barely survived. The damp, thrift-store funk of the past rises as you picture the leather jackets cops wore back then. Also: shoulder pads, Patrick Nagel prints, statement belts.

What strange force reconstitutes the past, allowing an entire decade to swell so quickly in your mind? Your ex-girlfriends stride through the back alleys of your memories, but Amanda is the only one you can see. Remember when she left you? Maybe not, because the pain was obliterating—your remaining atoms condensed into a cloud of bourbon and cocaine dust. Only the frenzied, angular music and the strobe lights remember how poorly you danced. Back then, your life was a string of Post headlines: Weasel Attacks Disgruntled Worker, Eleventh-Hour Lesbian Surprise, Supermodel Abandons Flailing Hubby. Everybody was a headless body, all of Manhattan a topless bar.

The landscape of your memory makes room for the entire jagged island, including the squat, cascading building that once housed your career. You haven’t thought of her in years, but Clara changed after she fired you. Tillinghast, that’s her last name, and you’re right to shudder at the sound of it. None of your old co-workers can explain the connection, but Clara’s here tonight, somewhere in the crowd, with her partner. Perhaps firing you was a breach of tradition that invited a new boldness into the lonely desolation your former boss called a life. Or maybe her free hours felt more precious after babysitting a whirlwind.

All that’s in the past, so distant it feels like history that people in history books read about. You outran the collapse of the magazine industry, surfed on the collective dread as the new century turned, went belly up and somehow continued. Through it all, you managed to weather the decades with a minimum of paunch and an undiminished sense of amazement. Growing up, you always pictured life as a stroll through a gauzy tunnel, with meaningful backward glances. Now, there’s a sense that it’s more of a circular affair, a series of loops where you stumble into younger versions of yourself. Each time, he seems to be shouting, but you can’t quite make it out.

Back at the fancy gala, the crowd is horseshoed around you, but how long have they been silent and staring? Your fiancée gives you a nudge, and perhaps misreading it, you hand off the plate of hors d'oeuvres you hadn’t realized you were carrying and trot toward the podium.

The woman holding the award locks eyes with you as she finishes her introduction. The last of her superlatives hang in the air: excellence in development, long-term viability, record-setting growth. Soon, they’re drowned out by more applause. From the ensemble of perm, pearls, and frown, you understand that strolling and gliding is permitted by the occasion, while your speed-walking shuffle is not. There’s a slight resistance as she surrenders the award, along with a giddy urge to hoist it aloft.

You don’t, of course. There’s a speech inside your tuxedo jacket, slipped there by—who else?—your fiancée. There’s a metaphor here, but there’s some assembly required, and your interest in metaphors waned after you left the magazine. To your credit, your hands aren’t shaking even though it’s tricky unfolding the speech with one hand while holding the award in the other.

You wrote this speech weeks ago, but this evening, your handwriting is a love poem penned in a language you no longer recognize. The room has gone silent with polite anticipation made ruddy by the cocktails, the late weekday hour, your blushing stiffness. A swish of fabric as the crowd parts to let a waitress pass, then a vacuum of silence. The animal part of you claws at the smooth fabric of the tight-fitting jacket and recoils at the halogen lights, which draw forth pinpricks of sweat. What are you doing here? Better figure it out quick—the crowd’s holding their smiles a little too long. Out of nowhere, the room conjures a dense, baroque word: bask. That’s the objective here, allowing oneself to be lighted and warmed. You welcome it the same way this room welcomed you, allow the praise and love to rise through the layers of your emotions. You clear your throat and a nearly audible breath of relief sweeps through the crowd.

Here, in this jewelry box of a room, I’m going to freeze time. Your speech, which you dropped in a panic, hangs in the air. A silver-haired man reaches toward a silver tray of garnet-colored ahi tuna. There’s the shy smirk on the face of that coworker whose name you can never recall. A city bus rumbles in the distance, the vibrations adding fizz to the air.

In the space between us, I’m going to write some names, starting with Megan Avery. Recall if you will her squarish face, curly brown hair cut in a way that defied fashion but remained in style. Those narrow green eyes so good at hiding pity that you didn’t notice until years later, when you could barely recall her face. Something tells you she hasn’t changed in the decades since you last saw her, when she was giving a tour through your old neighborhood, showing off the old-world bakeries and delis. Although cocaine and booze made you allergic to sunlight, that old neighborhood was steeped in it. She was trying to teach you how to cook the world’s simplest pasta dinner. She was opening possibilities—not romantic ones, like you’d hoped for in your delirium, but rather the possibility of getting your act together.

Here’s Vicky’s name in looping cursive, the tail of the “y” an underline. She never could have guessed the raw state of your soul as she brought insight fresh from college, a land of warm plaid. Vicky the brainy landmark on a steadying horizon.

There’s no need to mention Amanda again. Her first taste of marriage was you disassociating during your mother’s illness, a slow inward curling into yourself. Amanda would have called it a spiraling, and your mother remains shrouded in respectful silence reserved for saints and heads of state. She was neither, though, and the truth is, watching her pretenses drop as she spoke to you in that hospice bed, the smoked-glass clarity of those mornings together, the way her gentleness never fell away—it’s more than you can bear, even now. Your mother, whose passing you could only understand as something passing through you, a murk you submerged in, numbness and vague shapes. Somewhere, there was knowledge that those distant patches of sunlight might vaporize you once you surfaced. These were the eighties, and an entire generation was submerged with you in the dimming sparkle of those dance clubs. The paintings in this room would depict Megan and Vicky and even Clara as mermaids bearing you aloft, but you need to consider them as women, ordinary and fleshed, holding their breath as they swim upward, tugging on your heavy arms.

The eighties have passed into history like neon escaping a broken tube, or beams of light from a long-dead glitter ball. For so long, these memories, these women, were reflections on the dark window of a cab you hailed less and less often. But those women are here with you tonight, even the ones who aren’t. They’re standing right behind you. They are poised. In this stillness, we are asking one thing before your speech: we are asking you, just for one moment, to turn around.


As a Navy brat, Robert Yune moved 11 times by the time he turned 18. After graduating from Pitt, he lived in Pittsburgh for the next 15 years.


In the summer of 2012, he worked as a stand-in for George Takei and has appeared as an extra in commercials and movies such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Fathers and Daughters.

Yune’s fiction has been published in Green Mountains Review, The Kenyon Review, and Pleiades, among others. In 2009, he received a writing fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.


In 2015, his debut novel Eighty Days of Sunlight was nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Other nominees that year included Lauren Groff, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. His debut story collection Impossible Children won the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize and was published in October 2019 by Sarabande Books.

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