Authors: Helen Eisenbach
For Eric Ashworth and Gloria Safier
Wish you were here
Clay had just discovered the truth about man when he noticed the beautiful girl performing a murder.
The truth about man was that he was noblest when supremely intoxicated, and the stunning woman in the booth across from him was breaking someone's heart with the expertise of a hired killer. She had almond-shaped green eyes and used words like “suffocate” and “obsession.” The guy she was talking to (Clay couldn't see him, as the booth blocked his view) hadn't made a sound, but the girl went on and on, her voice husky and cynical. She had pale, gleaming skin surrounded by a lush mane of dark curls, but by the time she'd started talking about “psychosis,” Clay's loyalties had shifted almost entirely to her victim.
Something prevented him from dismissing her as a heartless killer, though. She might have been doing a job on the guy, but Clay got the feeling she wasn't enjoying it. Her eyes never left her boyfriend's face. Try as he might to hate her, he had to admit the woman was spectacular: tall, slender and exquisitely formed, she had the kind of body he had fantasized about but had never known existed in flesh and blood. A T-shirt and faded jeans showed off her slim waist, flawless breasts and graceful legs as brazenly as if she were dressed in a glittering evening gown. With her face unadorned and shimmering, she could have easily been a former tomboy, the younger sister of a friend who'd blossomed unexpectedlyâyet if she'd turned out to be the most exclusive fashion model in New York, Clay would not have been surprised.
Without warning she lowered her voice, laying her hands flat on the table. Clay had to strain to listen; what he heard was crueler than anything he could have imagined. It made her previous words seem gracious by comparison.
She was telling her companion about the time they'd been in love. Her tone was matter-of-fact, almost casual. There was no mistaking what she was telling him: once they'd had it all, and now they'd lost it. She didn't have to accuse him. All she had to do was remind him how things had been. The poor guy must have felt like throwing himself off a bridge because he'd blown it.
Clay felt his throat catch. This was the kind of thing no one should have to hear, not even about someone else. The girl's dead boyfriend didn't make a sound, but Clay wanted to cover his ears and howl. Better that they'd never been in love at all than this. He was drunk, he knew, obliterated, but he couldn't leave, any more than he could stop her. He motioned for another drink and concentrated on blotting out the rest of her words.
Her voice came to a cadence halfway through his fifty-seventh Scotch. She stood, her eyes across the table questioning, as if uncertain whether the corpse would have the ability to revive itself once she had left. “Nothing lasts forever,” she said, adding something in a voice so low Clay couldn't catch it. Then she turned and walked out of the restaurant.
Clay held his breath. Would the guy get up and follow? There was no sound or movement from the booth. The cool glass pressed against his hand; the murmurs of conversation in the restaurant seemed muted, somehow far away. Clay was struck with the thought that perhaps he'd imagined the whole thing: what if she'd been talking to herself and there'd been no one sitting with her the whole time? He lurched out of his seat over to her table.
In the corner of the booth, gazing blankly at an untouched hamburger, sat a sandy-haired young woman, as innocent-looking as her friend had been glamorous. She stared up at him with wide blue eyes.
He knew he must look insane, looming over her with his mouth open and eyes bleary from alcohol. “Uhâ” he said. “I wasâ”
She waited to see if he would say more. (It was beyond him, apparently.) After a moment she reached for the check, getting up to leave. “I'm so glad we had this little talk,” she said, and slipped past him. The next thing Clay knew, the door to the restaurant was swinging shut behind her.
“How about some action, Emma?”
The first time Clay had seen the beautiful girl, he'd been walking a friend's dog, his third month in Manhattan.
“Let's not take this to extremes,” he warned when ten full blocks of hydrants hadn't given Emma inspiration. Passing a sign that promised every kind of bagel conceived by man, he took the dog inside the overheated store; then, coming back out on the street, he saw an unattended pay phone ringing on the corner. He picked it up. “Zabar's,” he said cheerfully.
“I'd like to fuck you,” mentioned a complex, husky voice.
“Uh, Zabar's,” Clay repeated, hanging up before the caller had a chance to get too personal. He glanced up and she came out of Zabar's, without a doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
(he held his breath): dazzling emerald eyes, a dancer's fluid superhuman grace. (“Thanks anyway,” he told the ringing phone. “I'm probably not ready for the kind of real commitment you're looking for.”) Her arms were graceful, cradling a baguette as if it were a spray of flowers, and when she reached unvarnished fingers up to hook a shock of gleaming hair behind one ear, Clay felt a strange pain in his chest. Right this way, miss, he thought as a flurry of activity swelled the crowd before the store. “Go get her, Emma” (silky ringlets, pale green eyes). So many lovely women graced the streets of New York he'd have thought he'd be immune by now; yet this one defied mortal comprehension.
Abruptly Emma tugged her leash, impatient to examine several items of nouvelle cuisine scattered across the sidewalk. “Must you?” The girl seemed to look right through him as he lurched ahead, twisting to keep her in view. The “Don't Walk” sign began to flash, and she hurried across the street to beat it. Emma chose this moment to go into a crouch.
“What a thoughtful pet you are,” Clay observed, watching the girl disappear from sight. He should have just abandoned Emma, raced to take her in his arms; now he would never meet her.
There were times when the whims of New York City reduced him to near-paralyzing frustration. He eyed a woman dressed in rags: did she care that, of the countless women he'd been introduced to since arriving in New York, none of them had affected him as had this anonymous girl he'd never see again? (She did not.) He watched, completely helpless, as the path the girl had taken was obliterated by a stream of people, many of them giving him the coldly approving appraisal he'd grown used to in the past few months. “Something else?” he asked the dog as she prepared to stalk the city once again. “Perhaps you'd like to bite a cop?” A small boy bent to pet her; Emma licked his nose.
Clay thought of his naive enthusiasm upon arriving from Tennessee, scarcely dampened by the stream of women to whom he'd immediately been displayed as living proof of life on other planets. (“You'd never dream how few real straight men live here,” one confided, drifting off before he had a chance to ask what distinguished the truly heterosexual from mere dabblers.) The Futility of Love in the Big City seemed to be a favorite topic in most bars and parties he attended, or at least foremost in the minds of everyone with whom he talked. Yet the explanation seemed obvious to Clay: it was the disconnectedness of New York life, not lack of opportunity, that made everyone feel so isolated.
What a twisted paradise! He loved the city unabashedly. Even now, finding himself perilously on the brink of untoward intimacy with a passerby who turned out to be utterly oblivious to his presence, he could still summon the feeling of elation he'd felt upon first setting foot in Manhattan. New York City: just walking down the street, engulfed by masses of people, was invigorating. Frantic, intense, completely oblivious to even a possibility of the languid gentility he'd been raised to take for granted, the city's alien nature seemed as affectionate as a warm embrace. “Life here is anything you make it,” friends said. “No one cares if you act any special way.” (Or expects you to acknowledge anyone's existence but your own, he might have added.) He'd never felt such complete freedom; it was exhilarating.
A month went by without his seeing the beautiful girl again. He tried walking by Zabar's around the same time as that first day, but she never reappeared. This is ludicrous, he told himself, but all the same he roamed the neighborhood, trying to retrace paths she might have taken. She never emerged, not from a well-kept brownstone or a cheap hotel. He could always paste signs all down Broadway, he supposed, litter streetlights and bus shelters. (
Lost: woman of dreams, last seen wandering aimlessly with carbohydrates.
) She was probably visiting some girlfriend who was leaving town, he thought, bringing supplies for the obligatory tearful final dinner. No doubt it was her last visit to the neighborhood altogether. She hadn't looked his way once.
Clay's obsession with the girl amazed him. Without his knowing why, her image came into his head as he sat playing piano; unexpectedly, her face would loom those nights he drifted out with friends: going to parties, new clubs, drinking. He'd catch sight of her in crowd after crowd, only to brave a closer look and find a jarring, unfamiliar face where hers had been.
Sometimes it seemed as if a lunatic controlled his actions, goading him to seek the nameless girl although he had no chance of ever finding her. What did other people do? They earned a living, dawn to dusk, then spent the bulk of it each night to blot out the memory of what they'd done all day. It would be so much easier if only he were like his friends: so preoccupied with making money there wasn't time to stop and question what use any of it was.
you doing with yourself, white boy?” By the end of Clay's first year in New York, the mindlessness of his days had become so grating he vowed to abstain from any and all social obligations, sequestering himself from everyone he knew. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of interpersonal contacts the streets imposed, he stayed in his apartment watching the latest political indictment or impending meltdown on the news with increasing detachment, deliberately choosing jazz arrangements just beyond his grasp. There has to be some reason you are on this planet, he told his reflection, though just what it might be remained a mystery. For weeks he grappled with a vague unease, going outside only for specific needs: food, drink, a newspaper.
After two full weeks of isolation, however, the air of his apartment began to seem so suffocating Clay burst from his solitude, taking to the streets as if pursued. The miles passed under his feet without his stopping to consider where he was headed. Finally, as his legs began to tire, he caught sight of a lit sign promising foodâand, more important, drink. It seemed a direct invitation, one he could not ignore.
Clay was only on his second drink when he realized what his problem was: he was suffering his first attack of homesickness since leaving Tennessee. Could that be possible? He celebrated this turn of events as befit a genuine tragedy: with two quick shots of whiskey.
Yet the drinking didn't help. As he consumed more alcohol, memories of his childhood floated through his head unbidden. If he put his mind to it, he could nearly smell his boyhood summers, picture the piercing blue of the sky at sunriseâ“a color to which the City of New York has never been introduced,” he mentioned to the waitress. (There were so many beauties to which New York had never received even the promise of an introduction, he realized.) Along with these unsettling memories came nagging, unexpected worries about his future, to which he normally gave as little serious consideration as possible. As he began to ponder the path his life would take now that this strange new city was his home, he happened to glance around the bar.
The woman of his dreams, the woman he'd been looking for in vain, was seated mere feet from him, breaking someone's heart. After a few brief moments, the remainder of his evening lay around his feet in a million glittering shards.