Christine’s secretary said there was a smoke bomb in the subway— probably a practical joke—and there was a build-up of passengers.
“If you want to get to home before six, you’re better off walking,” the secretary advised.
Christine stuffed the paperwork she’d need into her leather carry-all and went down the empty staircase. Outside, the early autumn afternoon was gentle with light and a soft wind. The first few blocks were quiet and she fell into a game of watching the citrus-colored leaves whirl on the cement. Then she was blocked by a jump rope. Stepping around the children, Christine smiled and murmured hola, but they looked back at her suspiciously. They had been drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, sloppy renditions of flowers, animals, and skulls and crossbones.
A block or two later and she was walking through Chinatown, holding her breath against the heavy odor of dried fish and mushrooms, sidestepping boxes filled with glittering house shoes and satin pocketbooks. The pace was slow, congested with weekday tourists and the kids just out of school. The whisper of autumn had dissolved into a hum of people and cars. Her feet were beginning to ache and she was warm enough to take of her cardigan. A man in a small shop eyed her breasts and nodded to her. “Beautiful lady,” he called out. “Classy lady.” He wiped his hands on a bloody apron.
Within a few more minutes she was descending upon SoHo and slowed her pace, window shopping the bedspreads and rhinestone-studded jeans. She was approaching the corner of Broadway and Spring, weaving in and out of the crowd when her eyes were pulled to a face she recognized. It belonged to a woman standing across the street, waiting for the walk light. Christine shifted her purse from shoulder to hand, trying to remember.
The woman was mid-thirtyish, but in the way that Christine envied: still girlish, still a little careless with her hair and clothing. Still creative with herself. She was wearing a get-up of torn jeans and a black halter top covered with a bright red fishnet poncho. Her feet, with toenails painted silver, were strapped in beige platform sandals. In her hands she held a collection of shopping bags, which she balanced on her wrist to tighten a wind-whipped ponytail of curly red-brown hair. As the light changed and the woman moved forward, Christine focused once again on the face that she knew she knew: Wide-set blue-green eyes, a short forehead and chin, porcelain skin. Who is that?
But the woman remembered her first, stopping abruptly in the middle of the street with the crowd filtering around her. “Christine?”
Their eyes locked, and she remembered: It was Wendy, from college. Their boyfriends had been friends for a semester or two.
They found a spot under a shop awning to talk.
“I thought you were a client whose name I couldn’t remember,” Christine said.
“Look at you. My God, you're so different now. Like, all grown up.” Wendy had plopped the shopping bags on the sidewalk. A passerby accidentally kicked one of them up against the building.
Christine was compelled to scoop the bags together with her foot. “Don’t want anybody to take off with them,” she said, laughing graciously. “So. What are you doing in Manhattan?” Their college was in Michigan and, as far as Christine knew, no one she'd known there had any idea that she’d come with Vance to New York.
Wendy explained that she worked as a rep for a company that manufactured soymilk, and they’d sent her to attend an international health food conference. “The expo is over now,” she said. “And I’m just looking around the city. I’ve never been here before. This is my first day on my own. Everyone else I came with went home.” A silver pendant tied around her neck with a strand of black leather bobbed up and down as she talked. It was shaped like coiled snake. Above them, the sun fell behind clouds and the autumn afternoon fell into a dull-grey evening.
“I’ll have to show you around then,” Christine said, immediately wondering if she should have offered. “But I have to run now. I've got an appointment.”
They agreed to meet for dinner the next night, which was Friday.
Later at home, Christine told her business partner Terry about the meeting on the street.
“It’s so disconcerting,” she said into the phone. “Seeing someone like that.” On her lap sat the novel she was reading for her book club, Memento Mori.
“What do you mean, like that?” he asked.
“Someone you never thought you would see again. She’s like a stranger now. But she’s not. I know her, but not really. It all makes me think that there's a reason for this, that it was ordained somehow that I had to walk instead of taking the train.”
“Like fate put you together again.”
She invited Terry to come along to the dinner with Wendy, but he couldn’t. “I’m off to Montauk,” he said. “One last trip before winter starts. You should come out after you catch up with this college friend of yours. The Jitney leaves early tomorrow morning.”
“I would, but—” Christine stopped short, but then went on. “I’ve decided to start up a new habit. Church. On Sunday mornings, of course.”
“You?” She could hear his admonishment. “But you’re such a sinner. And proud of it.”
“I don’t sin much. At least not in my personal life. And I grew up as a Catholic.”
“Well, so did lots of people. I’m a Jew. You’d think I’d let that interfere with my weekend?”
Wendy was waiting outside the Italian restaurant, looking different than she had on the street the day before. Her hair was down, hanging in loose curls, eyes rimmed with thick liner, lips glossy. She wore a black sundress that skimmed the tops of her knees. They greeted each other and waited for a seat inside the small dining room where they balanced on shaky wooden chairs and spent a long time on the menu. Finally, they both ordered the shrimp and linguine in truffle oil. For drinks, they decided to share a bottle of red wine. The night was warm, still, and they watched through the window at the blue light washing over the crowd of passers-by. The storefront shops grew brighter and the traffic rumbled with the potential of a Friday night in Manhattan.
“Whatever happened between you and Vance?” Wendy asked. They were nearly done with the wine, but the linguine had yet to arrive.
Christine pulled away from the table to cross her legs. “I guess you never knew, did you? We were together for years, here in New York. In fact, we just spilt up last year. He’s living uptown now with his new girlfriend. A fashion designer, so she says.”
“You seem to be taking it okay.”
Christine shrugged. “It was my choice, the breakup.” Of course, there was more to the story, but she wasn't sure she wanted to share it with Wendy, who seemed like the sort who would have plenty of men in love with her. But the wine had loosened them up and she didn't see what difference it would make. “This is what happened. He always promised me a child. Just one. But when the time came, when I put my foot down and demanded it, he backed out.”
The linguine arrived and they began to eat.
“I think that’s atrocious,” Wendy said, winding the pasta on her fork. “But it doesn't surprise me. I never told you this, but he slept with my roommate Dana when he was dating you. I heard them one night in her bedroom.”
Christine felt her chest drop; a breath came out with an “uh” sound. She dropped her fork onto the plate and reached for the water carafe, heart speeding.
Wendy bit her lip. “Sorry,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn't have told you that?”
“Dana? I never heard about this at all.” Then she felt defensive; she didn’t remember Dana and didn’t want to ask. “He never cheated on me that I knew of. That wasn’t the problem between us.”
“It happened one night when he was over playing cards with us and drinking. It was just a one-night thing. I never saw them together again.”
“Why don’t we move on, go somewhere else?” Christine flopped a card on top of their bill. “I’ll get this. You buy a round of drinks at the next place. How does that sound?”
During the subway ride to St. Mark’s Place, they sat side by side. Wendy led the conversation and Christine listened halfway, focused more on the advertisements inside the car. She located the one that she and Terry had just designed—a cartoon frog with bulging eyes, lapping up a wine cooler. They’d gotten an award for that.
“Actually, I don’t drink the soymilk my company makes,” Wendy was saying. “It’s not as healthy as people think it is. And I’ve heard they don't even sell much of it in Japan. They don’t drink it there the way we do. In fact, their soy intake is lower than ours if you count all the fillers we use in processed food. They’re almost always made of soy. Did you know that vegetable broth in tuna fish is made of soy? That’s what the vegetable is.”
The subway stopped and they disboarded. Christine followed Wendy up the steps, resenting the way her sandals slapped the soles of her feet so crisply. At the top, they stopped to watch a bearded man play the guitar. On the ground in front of him was an open guitar case littered with change and a few dollar bills. They both added a quarter and moved on. The street and sidewalks were full of people, walking shadows that stopped to browse the vendor's stands—comic books, LPs, droopy vintage clothing. Christine bought their drinks at a corner bar, where they stood in a throng of college kids with a few suited men thrown in.
“It’s claustrophobic in here,” Wendy semi-shouted. And Christine agreed. The thickening crowd around the bar had pushed them against a railing near the entrance. She took hold of Wendy by the forearm and led her out. “I know a place you might like. In Battery Park. Let’s go there.” She took Wendy’s empty glass and set it on the floor with her own. They maneuvered around a stream of newcomers and made it back onto the street, where they stood in front of a stand selling cell phone cases.
“Are you sure you're over the Dana thing?” Wendy asked.
“Don’t give that a second thought. I was a little upset at first, but I’m over it now. I like you. I do. You know, I really think we saw each other for a reason. I was supposed to see you again. There's some reason for it, for us seeing each other again. Don’t you think so? Let’s get a cab.” She felt a flush in her face and neck as she waved one down and instructed the driver.
When they were settled into the seats, Christine told Wendy about the novel she was reading for the book club.
“Momento Mori, by Muriel Sparks. She’s British. Anyway, it was written in the fifties and it’s about all these old people who get a creepy phone call. Someone just dials them up and says Remember, you must die.”
“Weird. Are you finished with it yet?”
Christine realized that she didn’t remember anything about Wendy other than her face. Her college years had gelled into a single cumulative moment: the moment she’d met Vance. Everything after that, until now, had run along on auto-pilot. “Not yet,” she said. “We’re only reading a two chapters a week.”
Inside the Battery Park bar, a sleek spot in the lower level of a skyscraper, they lost each other in the crowd. Christine zigzagged around with a gin and tonic, forcing eye contact with every man she saw who might possibly be Vance. He might look different than she remembered, now that a year had passed since she’d seen him. Any man who was tall with brown hair might be him. She was convinced now that he was the reason for seeing Wendy on the street.
“What’s up?” said one of the men who wasn’t Vance. “You want to dance?”
But she shook her head and sat on a stool. Wendy was across the bar, sitting with a shaggy man in a leather jacket. They were laughing.
Christine decided to have one more drink, but she really just wanted to go home. Being with Wendy was getting negative fast. It was perfectly OK to dump the secret about Lance and Dana; in fact, hiding it would have been wrong. The universe had brought them together again for a reason, Christine thought, and it was because their time together wasn’t over. In her mind, she moved forward thirty years: She and Wendy were together at someone’s funeral, maybe even Vance’s funeral, walking together on a beach afterward, old friends and karmic souls. It made sense that someone like Wendy would show up in Christine’s life right now; she didn’t have any good friends in New York and missed female companionship. Terry wasn’t really a friend, more like an annoying cousin.
“Another one?” the bartender asked, nodding to her empty glass. “Last call.”
“No thanks.” Outside, the wind blew a flutter of leaves out of a street drain. Christine thought about some Italian cookies she’d seen in a bakery. They were hard, gray, rough cookies that were supposed to look like old bones.
Wendy wandered over and delivered details about the shaggy man she’d been talking to. “He’s an accountant.”
“Figures,” Christine replied. “He probably lives down here.” It struck her that Wendy was single, too. Or if she wasn’t, it hadn’t been mentioned over dinner.
“I didn’t want go back to his apartment.” Wendy continued. “He asked, though. Something wasn’t right about him. One of his eyes doesn’t focus in the same direction as the other. And he had on a wrist bandage.”
In college, Wendy had been so petite and tiny that she wore clothes from the juniors’ department. Christine had envied that. The juniors’ clothes were cuter and more interesting than the misses’ clothes. At some point, Wendy had sized out of juniors. Still, she was a size one or two at the biggest.
“Free drinks for the ladies,” the bartender said, placing out napkins in front them both, then setting pink martinis on the napkins. The rose-colored fluid trembled close to the sugared rim; under the orange lights, they looked like halos.
“What?” Wendy was flabbergasted.
The bartender extended a glass of whiskey to a spot behind them, where the shaggy man came up to accept it. He offered a strong handshake to Christine, using the hand that wasn’t holding the drink. It was also the hand with the bandage on it.
“I’m Dallas,” he said.
Dallas looked like one of the men who stood outside the stock exchange smoking Marlboro Lights, and they usually had names like Tony or Vic. Dark curly hair, bedroom eyes—one that didn’t focus right, as Wendy had mentioned --, thick lips, chest puffed out in machismo. He had fashioned himself in Western-wear with pointed boots and a snap-button gingham shirt and smelled like expensive sandalwood cologne.
They had only fifteen minutes for the drinks, the bartender said. Dallas leaned against the bar, facing them on the stools. The conversation focused on when exactly Wendy was supposed to leave tomorrow.
“I have to check out of my hotel by eleven,” she said, slurring slightly. “But my plane doesn’t leave until four-thirty.”
“You’ve got time for brunch, then,” Dallas remarked. He pulled up one side of his lip and sucked a sip of his drink.
Christine found a halfway comfortable position on the stool and blocked them out. She lifted the martini, which tasted like bitter bubble gum, to her mouth carefully, taking an extra-large sip each time. They were out late, too late. The energy in the bar was sagging as a busboy swept remnants of the evening into his dustpan: A hair barrette, broken glass, folded bottle caps. She watched, feeling suddenly that things were about to begin—a second wind was churning in her arms, coaxing her to rest her eyes for a long second. She finished the martini, stood up from the stool, and went to the big window that looked out onto the street corner. The table in front of the window was empty, so she sat in a curved wooden chair and watched as through it played on a movie screen. The trees shook their silvery leaves into piles for pedestrians to step around. The streetlights were the new energy-efficient kind that grew brighter when objects or people strolled into range. The shifting intensities up and down the block caused the sense that infrastructure was unstable and uncertain about how life on the street should be handled.
A police car sat across the street, lights spinning. The officer was questioning a group of annoyed young people, writing responses on his pad.
A tug at her sleeve.
“We have to go.” Wendy sat down with a loose smile. “Do you want to go see Dallas’s apartment? It’s down the block, he said. I want to, kind of.”
“Why?” Christine didn’t think it was a good idea. They’d been drinking too much and it was late. Her own apartment with its nice walls and pretty lamps and interesting books was overtaking her second wind. The four-poster bed she had once shared with Vance was made up with clean sheets and down pillows.
“I just want to. Do you think it’s dangerous?”
“Of course it is.”
Dallas appeared behind Wendy, jacket zipped. Earlier, he had explained that he injured his wrist playing racketball, and Christine had wondered why the bandage was the taped-up kind instead of the stretch-fabric Velcro kind that most people wore for sports injuries. His phone, tucked in an upper pocket, began to vibrate and flash.
“Yo,” he answered and went to a corner near the entrance to talk.
“He invited a friend of his,” Wendy told Christine.
“To what? His apartment?”
The bartender turned on the lights and turned off the music. An unsettled and urgent energy gripped the room. “Everyone out,” he called. Most of the crowd was already filtering through the front doors, wrapping up in sweaters and jackets, flocking to their rideshares. Christine had no sweater. Out on the street, they shivered under a tree while Dallas went looking for a cab. The street lamp, failing to detect motion, went out.
In the gray cold, Wendy had become a half-shadow.
“I barely remembered you yesterday,” Christine said. “It almost hurt to remember your name. I almost walked right by. It would have bothered me for a few days, but then I would have forgotten again.” Half a block down, Dallas was convincing a cab driver to choose him over a pair of girls. He lost and the girls got in. Dallas looked back and gave them a thumbs-up sign before he disappeared around a corner.
Christine leaned against the tree. The subway was only a block away. “It was a long time,” she said, too loudly. “Twelve years.” A sharp, shaking breath pushed more words out. “A fucking fool, for twelve years. That was me.”
“I’m sorry. Do you think—”
“And I never would have know if not for you. If I hadn’t seen you.”
The street was empty and dark. It wasn’t often a busy block in the city was so free and open with no one in the way; the open space invited a bitter flood of regret. When Christine had recognized Wendy on the street, she’d lifted a veil from her internal vision. It was like finding an old thing lost and forgotten but once wished for. Now, it couldn’t be used. Just locked into luggage.
“Don’t leave me here, OK?” Wendy begged. They were the only people on the street. “I don’t know if he’s coming back.”
It was easy enough to take the subway home. When Christine stepped onto the sidewalk, Wendy grabbed the bottom corner of her shirt.
Remember, you must die.
Christine pulled away without looking back or saying goodbye, forming a hunch that Wendy didn’t exist. A streetlamp clicked on with automated obedience. On the other side was the fifty or so feet of cement leading to the underground, a downward staircase smoothed from decades of trampling feet. Christine would go there now, follow the path of distorted circle lights, now certain there was no good reason for anything that had happened that night, or for anything at all.
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