/ Fiction /
She found the place without too much trouble, though she wouldn’t have known this was Chinatown if Charlie hadn’t told her. It had been so long, she couldn’t say whether the neighborhood had changed or she had just forgotten. Still, there was a kind of dream logic to her steps, as though her body knew where she was going even if her conscious mind didn’t. Of course, she had looked up directions, but when the time came to leave, after she’d carefully chosen her outfit and done her hair and makeup and put on and taken off three pairs of earrings, she almost convinced herself she didn’t need directions. Almost.
Her smartphone made navigating the subway so easy, it felt like cheating. The restaurant had yet to open when she arrived. Rather than mill about in front looking pathetic, she decided to walk the neighborhood. She rarely felt nostalgic for the city. When she left all those years ago, she’d been glad to get out. Now she realized how much she had missed it. Each block seemed to crackle with its own livewire energy, a current humming beneath the flow of life. The streets were cleaner than she remembered, but the sour, pungent smell of garbage and urine was oddly comforting. Nothing stank like that back home.
She stopped at a bodega for a pack of cigarettes—her old brand, Marlboro 100s, only they were called something else now. As she swiped her card, her eyes wandered to the box of Durex behind the counter. She quickly looked away.
She lit up outside, the nicotine kiss bringing her back to a different time, a different self. Exhaling a plume of smoke, she felt her purse vibrate. She reached for her phone and saw a text from her husband: Where is Mister Pants? She started to respond, then dropped the phone back into her purse and started walking. He would figure it out. Just for tonight, she resolved not to think about dinner time or bath time or story time or bed time. It had been years since she’d known the luxury of not being responsible for anyone but herself. She was not going to think about Mister Pants.
At the corner of Grand and Chrystie, a man and a woman were arguing loudly. Fascinated, she tried to observe them without staring. The sun’s dying light cast the couple in a warm amber glow. The man said, “I want you back. Because what we had? What we had was so good.” His voice was emotional, his expression pained. The woman slurred something unintelligible, then: “Buy me a pizza.” “Fuck you,” the man said. They turned and shot off in opposite directions, as if pulled apart by some magnetic force.
She kept walking. The autumn air felt cool and crisp on her skin, not heavy with humidity like it was back home. Eventually she saw a bar she thought she remembered. She couldn’t tell if it was open, but she descended the stairs and found the door unlocked. It was dark inside, and once her eyes adjusted, they landed on a stuffed jackalope. Yes, she definitely remembered this place. She went up to the bar and ordered a beer. She didn’t want to be drunk already by the time she saw him.
She sat at a banquette in the corner, trying to remember the last time she’d set foot in this place. Funny how you never know when you’re doing something for the last time. But whatever the occasion, she must have been with Charlie. He was all bound up with that time in her life, when the world was so ripe with possibility, it was bursting wide open. A time when nothing was decided and everything was still ahead of her. Back then she thought that was just what life was, that it would go on like that forever.
They had been young and stupid, in the way that smart, damaged kids often are. So much of their time together hadn’t been good. But over the years, it had acquired a patina in her mind: the tortured romance of life at its most intense. All that cliché bullshit. The art they made and the parties they threw, the friends and the fucking and the fighting. In her memory they had all collapsed into one thing, and it was a million miles away from the life she lived now, where she sometimes forgot she had a name besides Mommy. But she knew that if she hadn’t gotten out of the city, she would have kept on living that other life forever. Going out every night, closing the bars down and following strangers to the afterparty. Waking up the next day with no memory of how she got home. It was fun, until it wasn’t. Until she realized she wanted something more. Was it the city or Charlie she had outgrown, the city or Charlie she had to leave behind? In the end, it amounted to the same thing.
By the time she got back to the restaurant, she was a few minutes late. From the sidewalk she could see him through the window. He had his back to her, hunched over the bar, but she would have known him anywhere. She went inside, breezed past the hostess and sat down beside him.
“Hi,” she said, looking at him without turning her head.
Silently she took note of the changes, ones she’d never seen in person, only pictures. Scrolling through his Facebook profile late at night, careful never to hit like. He wore glasses now, and he dressed better. His hair was longer, and there were threads of gray mixed in with the black. He had always been vain about his hair. Otherwise, he looked the same. She wondered how she looked to him, whether her dress would have the desired effect or if it would come across as trying too hard. Under the imagined pressure of his gaze, she felt her pulse accelerate. Her hand flew to her neck, clasping the silver pendant that hung just below her collarbone. What was she doing? She let go and folded her hands in front of her.
“You made it,” he said.
“I did.” She felt that they should have had a more auspicious greeting, at least hugged hello, but they were already sitting and neither of them moved to get up. She eyed the drink on the marble countertop in front of him. “Is that their specialty?”
“I don’t know if it’s their specialty. It’s just what I always get. Best negronis in the city.”
“That’s what you said.”
When the bartender came over, she glanced down at the menu. She pretended to scan it for a moment before ordering a negroni, like she’d always known she would.
“I went to the bar down the street,” she said as she watched her drink being made. “The one you used to work at. Hasn’t changed much.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
The bartender set her drink in front of her. She lifted the glass to her mouth and took a sip.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked.
“It’s good,” she said. “I’m probably not the best judge.”
“What do you usually drink?”
“Not much, these days. Wine at home, sometimes.”
“Oh, right.” He took his glasses off and wiped them with his shirttail. “How’s the little one?”
“She’s good. Just turned five.”
“Is she in school yet?” he asked. “I don’t know what age these things are.”
She could hear the disinterest in his voice. “She just started kindergarten.”
“That must be a relief.”
She started to say something, then changed her mind. Leaving her daughter in that classroom felt like losing a limb. But of course he would think it was a relief.
“And the mister?” he asked.
“He’s good, too. What about…” She took a beat to make it seem like she was having trouble remembering the name. Hating herself for the charade.
“Right, how’s Anna?”
“She’s fine,” he said. “Good.”
She nodded. How she loathed this mindless chitchat. But what else was there to say? For all that had passed between them, they were practically strangers to each other now. They fell into a strained silence. She could feel each individual second ticking away.
“How’s the place you’re staying?” he asked.
“Pretty nice. A Hyatt in Midtown. I guess the agency got a group rate.”
“Must be strange, being back in the city after all this time. Or have you been back before?”
“No, I never have. It’s all so different now,” she said. “You ever go back to the old neighborhood?”
“Not really. You wouldn’t recognize it. It’s actually cheaper to live here now. At least, where I live.”
“That’s insane. You said your place is around here, right?” She felt the blood rush to her face as soon as the words came out. She wanted to explain that she hadn’t meant anything by it, but her tongue was uncooperative, lying fat and heavy in her mouth. She took another drink, sucked down half the liquid in the glass.
“A few blocks away,” he said. “You want to see it?”
She put her drink down on the counter and stirred what was left with the rapidly disintegrating paper straw. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
When they finished their drinks, he paid the bartender and she followed him outside. He stopped to light a cigarette, so she did the same. The gray twilight deepened as they walked past street vendors and windows strung with bright red carcasses. At a crosswalk, a woman with a fanny pack pressed a long-stemmed rose into her hand. She tried to give it back, but the woman wouldn’t take it. “It’s fine,” he said, digging his wallet out of his pocket. He paid the woman, and they kept walking.
Once she was inside his apartment, she let herself breathe a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t have thought places like this still existed in the city—a subterranean shoebox, stinking of mildew, with one grated window that let in a faint glow of light from the street. But there were always pockets that resisted the tide of gentrification, same as back home. If you knew the right people, if you knew where to look. She thought of her own house, bright and modern, with a place for everything and rooms they didn’t even go into. A quarter acre of land. They’d be old by the time it was paid off, but still, it belonged to them. On paper, anyone would have said she’d won. Except he was in the city, and she was right back where she started. With a kid and a husband, like every other girl she’d grown up with, only she’d done it ten years later. Well, she’d made her choice.
“Is that…” She pointed at a pot of ivy hanging next to his bookshelf, its tendrils trailing almost to the floor. “Sylvia?” It was silly, but she’d always loved that name.
“It is,” he said.
“Wow. You kept her alive all this time.”
“You always said she was impossible to kill.”
She thought of their old apartment in Williamsburg, not much bigger than this place—but the quality of the light in the morning, filtering through those bright green leaves. She could remember the day she brought that plant home, a sad, desiccated sprig that she coaxed back to life. How young she had been. A little girl playing house, picking out names.
“You want something else to drink?” he asked. “I’ve got beer. Or whiskey.”
Her head was already thrumming, she was a lightweight now. “I really shouldn’t,” she said. “Would you mind making coffee? What am I saying, you probably go out for coffee.”
He looked at her, bemused. “I have coffee.”
She sat on his leather couch, watching intently as he filled a kettle with water and pulled a Chemex from the cabinet. Remembering how she had always made coffee for him—in the morning before she went to work, and lazy days off when they wouldn’t leave the apartment. The pipes knocking in the walls and the neighbors clomping overhead while they stayed in bed, smoking cigarettes and drinking strong coffee laced with more potent pleasures. Hours spent reading and watching movies, the scent of their bodies thick on the sheets, hanging in the air. The sheepish look he would give her while climbing on top of her.
She swallowed and looked away. The rose was still in her hand, its cellophane sleeve crumpled and sweaty. She set it down on the coffee table. One of his paintings hung on the wall in front of her, a nude reclining. As she stared at the violent brushstrokes, she tried to remember if it was one she had posed for. Even back then, they had all looked the same to her—deconstructed bodies with smeared voids for faces.
“So what is this thing you’re here for?” he asked. “I know you told me.”
“Some circle jerk conference. I don’t even know why they sent me. But hey, free trip to New York.”
“How long have you worked there?”
“Eight years now,” she said. It sounded like a lifetime.
“You must like it okay.”
“It’s fine, mostly,” she said. “It’s not my dream job. Some of the people I work with have been there twenty, thirty years. I don’t want to end up like that, you know? Working the same job for the rest of my life.”
“You gotta work somewhere. Unless you plan on winning the lottery.”
“What about you?” she asked. “You said you’re teaching now?”
“Yeah. At this private school, St. Ignatius. The kids are total pricks. It’s alright, though. Beats bartending.”
The kettle started shrieking, and he turned away from her to pour the water. She watched him do it carefully, adding more whenever the trickle into the chamber began to slow. When it stopped altogether, he lifted the filter and chucked it in the sink. He grabbed two mugs from the cabinet and poured the coffee. They had always taken it black.
“You sure you don’t want me to Irish it up for you? For old time’s sake.” He turned his head to look at her, his smile open, casual. His eyes dark as always.
“Go on then,” she said. He reached for the bottle of Jameson on the counter and poured them each a healthy glug. “You still drink that crap?”
He shrugged. “I’m a man of simple taste.”
“Says Mr. Negroni over here.”
He carried the mugs to the coffee table and sat down. His thigh grazed hers as he shifted his weight, and the thrill of contact made her body go stiff as a statue.
“It’s good to see you,” he said. “I was surprised, honestly. When I saw your message.”
“Well. We’re both adults, right?” She took a sip of her coffee and set it back down. “I figured enough time had passed.”
“I’d looked for you on there before, you know. Never could find you.”
“You didn’t know my new name.”
“I was surprised you changed it,” he said.
“It’s just easier, when there’s a child involved.”
“Right, of course.”
With a sigh, he removed his glasses and set them on the coffee table. He looked younger without them, more like the boy she used to know. The air between them held a charge, like the moment the wind changes before a storm. Her body could barely contain her as he reached out and put his hand on her knee.
“Elena,” he said, and her heart ached hearing her name on his lips.
She laid her hand on top of his. In a moment he would kiss her, she knew this. And she would let it happen. She imagined a kiss that carried the weight of all the years together and apart, that was only sweeter for it. Old and new, familiar but strange. And she would feel alive and beautiful, like her skin was on fire, like everything was still possible and nothing had been lost. Any moment now, it would happen.
“Elena, there’s something I should tell you,” he said. With difficulty, she lifted her eyes to his face. “So, we’re not really telling people yet, it’s still early. But me and Anna… we’re having a baby.”
“Oh,” she said, after a few dumbstruck seconds. “Well, that’s… wow.”
“We didn’t plan it. But, you know, it happened.”
“You get older,” he said. “These things change.”
Her mouth went dry, the coffee rancid on her tongue. A whole other life opened up before her, then shriveled away just as quickly. She could still remember the first time she looked at a baby and felt that painful clutch in her throat. The unlikely hope taking root. Dancing around the subject until he told her straight out, “That will never, ever be me.” Their fights getting nastier and more frequent. The nights he didn’t come home, and the shouting matches the next day. The time she never even told him about, when she took care of it herself because she couldn’t bear to say the words out loud, couldn’t bear to have him tell her to get rid of it.
He moved his hand on top of hers, tracing a line across her knuckles with his thumb. “But I want you to know,” he was saying. “Me and Anna, we have an arrangement. We’re not really even together. It’s just, she’s at the age where this might be her last chance.”
She had seen Anna’s profile. Anna was thirty-four. But fine, whatever. “What do you want me to say?” she asked.
“I just thought I should tell you, before this goes any further. I wouldn’t want you to find out later, and think I wasn’t honest with you.”
“Okay. Well, thank you for being honest.” She stood abruptly, letting his hand fall away. “I should really get going.”
She could feel him on her heels as she bolted for the door. Heartbeat thundering in her ears, she yanked at the doorknob. It refused to yield, and a geyser seethed in her chest as she twisted the locks helplessly.
“Elena, please,” he said. “I really wish you’d stay.”
“Why, so we can have one last fuck? For old time’s sake?”
“No, that’s not—I don’t know.” He sighed wearily. “I mean, why did you come here? What did you want, what did you think was going to happen?”
He grabbed her wrist and pulled her in close. She breathed in his old, familiar smell, that heady mixture of pheromones and noxious chemicals. Coffee and cigarettes, turpentine and sweat. She felt a hot, precise stab of anger and arousal as she broke free.
“I don’t know,” she said. “This was a mistake. Thank you for the coffee, Charlie. Now please let me leave.”
He said nothing, staring straight into her eyes. Finally he turned the deadbolt and pulled the door open. She held his gaze until there was nothing to do but turn away.
When she emerged onto the sidewalk, she picked a direction and started walking. She moved through the crowded streets like a shark gliding through the ocean—no thoughts or feelings, just forward motion. Her surroundings were nothing more than a series of obstacles to overcome.
On and on she walked, until her feet began to hurt and she felt a blister developing. At a bus stop, she sat down and took off one of her impractical shoes. Her heel was red and oozing. She winced as she tore away a scrap of ragged skin. Looking around, she tried to identify a landmark or some feature of the neighborhood she might recognize. Darkness was falling, the city lights blinking on one by one. She rubbed her bare shoulders. The air had turned cold as a scalpel.
A bus pulled up to the curb, expelling a stream of people. She waved the driver on, and as the bus pulled away, she lit another cigarette and fished her phone out of her purse. Two news alerts, some emails from the office, one from the conference about the panels she’d missed that day. Another text from her husband: Found him. Sylvia misses Mommy. Followed by a picture of her daughter, hugging the tattered elephant with polka dot pants that had been her own toy long ago. With her blue-gray eyes and long blonde curls, Sylvia looked just like she had at that age.
It hit her all at once, like a blow to the chest. How could she forget, even for a minute? The wild joy and terror of having a living, breathing piece of her own heart outside her body. The slow, sweet sadness of watching it grow into a separate person, each day a little smarter and stronger, a little farther away. She’d made her choice, and she was bound to it. None of these streets would lead her back to her old life. She stubbed out her cigarette and wrote back, Tell her Mommy misses her too.