A beginning can be everything, all you have to go on. Even if you realize witnesses would agree Nothing Happened. But no one else saw what I did, the first time I ever saw him, beneath the sidewalk staging that protected passersby from the slow renovation of the building. A thick gray hose snaked across the pavement where the latest workers had dropped it, right in our path. With a gallant half-bow, the bearded man in the bright yellow waterproof seized one loop and smartly whipped the whole thing aside, like a seasoned cowboy with a lariat. It was a fine, grand gesture. I smiled, an appreciative stranger’s small smile.
His own smudged face was radiant: he was looking at me as if. . . I don’t know, as if he had been waiting for me forever. I can’t remember the last time I found a man’s eyes full of such light. My light.
But I didn’t feel my chest constrict, my heartbeat quicken, until I’d pushed Julia’s stroller along a few yards. A half-forgotten kind of thrill sizzled my brain. He was behind me now, and I could feel how he wanted me to turn! again, and how I wanted to turn. And I did turn, and looked longer than I should have—a mother with a toddler, I mean, strollering home to watch “Sesame Street”—stared at this strange man in a dirt-streaked slicker stealing time from his employer. CitySteamers: Fine Facades, the sign had said. I turned and looked, and (doesn’t the song warn?) that was all it took. I was—I am—if not in love, at least hooked into something with someone who steam-cleans buildings for a living.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no snob when it comes to his profession. I can actually say, with almost straight face, that one of my best college friends became a steam man himself, specializing in campus buildings back out there on the Ohio flats; he’s steamed the dreary limestone dorm where we first met. Though we’re lately less in touch, he once asked me to marry him. True, he was half-joking (he wrote the question on the inside of an empty box of King Edward match sticks) but still, it was my first proposal, and if things had worked out differently, who knows?
Besides, I’m not marrying this guy either. I’m already married (a much later, mutual proposal), long-term, quite happily, thanks. So what does it matter if the man scales buildings—or plays scales on a violin, as my dear H.still does, in his spare time?
Our second meeting is more distant, and even more disarming for that. Walking home to my morning’s work, I survey the half-bleached apartment house, my eyes drawn to the blue plastic sheeting that shields the workmen’s scaffold from the back spray of their hoses. Is he up there? Something—a laugh, or a movement at the edge of vision, or nothing but instinct—makes me start, shift my glance to another plastic shelter, slung lower down. Ah. There he is. His brilliant, unabashed smile makes me think that he’s been watching me watch for awhile.
I don’t like being caught in the act any better than anyone else. It’s a rude shock, like a slap when you’re expecting a caress. But it’s exciting too, as that slap might be under certain circumstances. I walk on, almost breathless with idiotic excitement. I’ll have to see him again.
And it’s occurred to me, these past several days, as I find myself lingering on the corners that give a clear view of his at 79th and West End, searching the sides of the building from behind my sunglasses without turning or lifting my head, or stopping too long, or otherwise giving myself away (I hope), that this is my first interesting infatuation in awhile. I’m not surprised, really, that it was sparked by nothing more substantial than a smile beneath a spray of steam. It’s the very unreality of such an attraction that makes it so fascinating, sharpening desire, sweetening despair.
Face it: romantic risks and complications are hard to come by in everyday life, after years with the same person, however well-loved. A crush conjures them instantly, all that fine, fresh feeling, but manageable, not madly overwhelming. I suppose it’s something like standing outside in a storm, embracing the elements, knowing all along you can go right upstairs whenever you want, wrap yourself in a big terry cloth robe, and sit by the fire with a drink and a good book.
I recall occasionally thinking I was getting a bit too comfortable with H.by our own cozy fire, before Julia came. And then, here she was, and I could sense a very specific and unsettling settling down: I became Mommy, who didn’t even look at men on the street anymore. And all of a sudden, no one was looking at me. Mommies, you understand, don’t flirt with the possibility of being diverted, turned on to someone else. Meanwhile, men look and look away, seeing only Mommy now too.
This man, though, who strips familiar facades from buildings, seems somehow to see beyond my own. I didn’t meet him alone, after all. He made way for both of us, mother and child, his gaze measuring, marking me fair game, Mommy or not. I felt that immediately. It’s how I want to play it.
A new twist: they’ve relocated overnight, vanishing from our home block, reappearing on the corner we round each morning at 8: 45, bound for Julia’s nursery school. Funny coincidence; instant karma.
Karma doesn’t just happen, though; you have to make a cause, make things come together, they say. Like the way we run into him today. Almost literally. I’m wheeling the stroller at a clip toward the building at 75th and Broadway where we turn east.(Trying, among other things, to outrun my vague dejection at his being gone.) And suddenly, he’s here, it’s really him, down among us groundlings again, stepping to one side as we hurtle toward him. The rain is like dew in the curls his creased yellow hood half-covers. His eyes are as earthdark as ours (mine, Julia’s, H.’s) are seapale.
Do I manage to hold his eyes for a moment again? I think so, but then my own fall; strange sensation, for me, such shyness. My mind has seized an instant’s impression, though, a mental Polaroid: auburn hair and full beard framing weather-roughed complexion; those speaking orbs; nose splendidly outsized; ruddy lips full of speculation. He seems the figure of the whole world’s dark, devastating strangers.
And our unexpected reunion is electrifying. My body pulses with the pure delight of it; I’m trembling as I tighten my grasp on the stroller’s hand grips. His mouth on my breast, sliding down to kiss my belly, couldn’t stir me more. But all I do is let it rush me away from something like a chance. The light is red. I could legitimately stand here with him for minutes. Yet I barely look both ways before pushing off, bumping across the asphalt and up onto the opposite curb; then, veering sharply to the left, I race to school with Julia, fast as we can go.
Returning home alone, I retrace my steps, appraising the site from another perspective. He’s still standing on the corner I fled, guiding pedestrian traffic. The hood is crumpled at his nape; his hair is a handsome mane. At the moment, he’s offering his arm, his gallantry, to an elderly woman in black vinyl raincoat, bonnet, and boots. A knife stroke of jealousy stabs at my diaphragm. How many women will he turn his smile on in the course of a day? It’s another sort of pleasure, though, this pinch of possessiveness. It pleases me to wonder whether our encounters are special to him too, whether he has felt shaken, turned around, his heart pounding hard beneath that heavy rubber jacket.
This afternoon, on my way to Julia, I note his absence for the third time in five hours. The faces of the break-idled crew are brown and black, the voices richly island-accented, calling to one another, sidewalk to scaffold and back again, until I’m spotted.”Hello, beauty! Why no smile? Hello, sweet thing! Hello, love!” Just the usual street noise, nothing there for me. I relax, stride by. And then, I see him, headed over from Amsterdam Avenue, where he has no business being, all the decent take-outs are on Broadway. But here he comes, carrying a small brown paper bag. Coffee. Maybe a donut, or a buttered bagel.
Will I smile without casting down my eyes, or turning aside altogether? I can see that he sees me long before we’re close enough for a smile, or any other sign of recognition. He crosses the street, continues past. This time, I look and he doesn’t. It seems to me, though, that his not-looking is studied, self-conscious, as mine has been, often enough. It is, surely, a kind of response. When I reach the corner, I cross to his side and stop to look down the long block at the small group he’s rejoined.
Out from under the dark shelter of the scaffolding, massed together with the sun burnishing the blackened amber of their uniforms, they all seem alien, and faintly ludicrous. He’s nearly nothing to me now, either, no one special. I wish he had somehow acknowledged our acquaintance. At the same time, I know that if he had, I couldn’t have stood here like this, boldly looking and looking: if he had stopped—if even now he began walking back toward me, I imagine I would be helpless to resist.
It’s a powerful feeling, this sense of powerlessness; it means the end of my moment of cool, my calculated detachment from him. I’m glad to have to hang around the nursery, waiting for Julia to wake from a nap; and I take her home a different way, grateful she’s still too drowsy to do much talking. I need time to draw out, fully savor, my voluptuous little visions.
What, really, would he be doing in our D’Agostino’s at six in the evening, neatly attired in a corduroy sports jacket and herringbone slacks? I won’t put this logical question to myself until later, and there won’t be any logical answer. But I know it’s him. When I look up from the romaine I’m sorting through and see him, in semi-profile, selecting a cantaloupe, drawing it closer to his magnificent nose to breathe in its fragrance, my heart begins beating so wildly I have to put my hand to my chest, as if to keep it from leaping out and flopping among the vegetables.
“What’s the matter, Mommy?” Julia sees all, of course.
“Nothing, sweetie,” I manage. He puts down the small melon and moves away, around the curve of the long dairy case. I lose all interest in vegetables and fruit myself. I give the wagon a shove and we spin away after him.
Is it? Isn’t it? As we draw abreast of a bunch of cardboard characters from cold cereal land, Julia insists on stopping. “Who’s this tiger, Mommy? Who’s that little girl? Who’s the funny green man? Mommy? Mommy! Mom-may!?!” I’ve turned away, looking behind me, then anxiously scanning the checkout lines. He’s gone. My piercing disappointment almost shocks me into abandoning the search.
But then I see him loping down the aisle that ends with diapers and wipes. In an instant, I make a hard left and follow, shushing Julia’s angry wail with an urgent hiss that for once shuts her right up. I just want to get one good look at him, head on, face to face under the glare of a supermarket’s fluorescents.
He lingers at the delicatessen counter, peering through the plate glass at the scones and muffins, the smoked fishes, the salads and puddings and starch-thickened soups. That strange giddiness seizes me again as I study him, so absorbed in his own domestic endeavor, while I’m almost outside myself and that part my life. Julia, temporarily silenced, might as well be a million miles away.
He’s bound to look up. But he doesn’t look at me. Instead, he unhesitatingly glances toward a ceiling surveillance camera, trained on the aisle we share. Sort of spooky, picturing some security guard spying on my spying. But it also somehow authenticates the whole thing, making it less likely a trick of my own mind. He’s really there. Isn’t he?
Abruptly, he chooses a package of deli rolls and steps down the aisle toward the nearest check-out, an express line. My shopping cart is empty, except for a child and the gaudy assortment of miniature cereal boxes she’s grabbed. But I still haven’t seen his face. I’ll just pay for this, I decide. How long did I expect to be able to ban sugary shit from her breakfasts, anyway? And I can get dinner at the Korean’s. I’ve got to see his face.
Two other people have already joined the express line, posing with their little red baskets between him and me. Tough luck. I watch his broad back as he exits, melting into the Broadway evening mob before I even reach the register. Still, I smile all the way home. For dinner, I make a ratatouille over wild rice, all the best, most expensive ingredients from the greengrocer. Everyone loves it. And on the table, there’s a nice bouquet I bought myself besides.
Even before he realized who it was, he sensed someone (he says), someone far below, waiting, wanting him, walking on after awhile. And always coming back the next day. Making my karmic cause. Believe it or not, it’s a relief to be finally standing side by side on the swaying scaffold, in spite of the real possibility of tumbling to earth if the wind picks up.
He doesn’t make a move at first: evidently, he wants to let me get used to being up here. We stand gazing out on the passing scene for awhile, not talking much, until I impulsively step back, at first barely tiptoeing across the splintered wood, then testing the spring of the boards, curious to see what he’ll have to do to compensate. I’m starting to have fun with the riskiness of it.
It’s only when I turn to ask him why it’s so quiet along the rigging that he opens his arms wide (shrugging slightly as if to ask me why I’m stalling now), and draws me into a rough embrace. There’s an unexpected scent, of cedar I think: something warm and welcoming, anyway, where I’d anticipated a chemical dampness. I slide my arms around him, and lay my cheek on the blue flannel he wears beneath his steamer’s suit. His heartbeats are steady as timpani; he shifts his stance slightly, so that I can feel how hard he is already. I move against that hardness and grind my knuckles into the small of his back. Where are we going to do it?
A heap of blankets makes a rude nest between the corner rails. I recognize them as the sort of mildewy, drab woolen army surplus my mother used to send with me to camp. He leads me over to the humid bower, his face buried in my hair. I fall back, scrambling and screaming with scared laughter at the way the rigging rocks, and he stands over me, riding the motion as if we’re in a life raft on the high seas. He throws his head back and laughs too, a happy pirate noise, then squats and cups my breast with his big hand, kneading fabric and flesh encouragingly.”Don’t worry,” he reassures me.”We’re all alone up here; no one can see us.”
What the hell makes him say that? Even as he leans over to kiss me, his long lashes flicking down and his lips parted and searching, my eyes are wide with sudden suspicion. Sure enough, as I scan the windows at his back, they seem to be filled with faces, gleefully leering, noses pressed to the panes.
I struggle to sit up. He covers my face with kisses. I’ve never wanted anyone so desperately; I could even forget the voyeurs. But a whistle blows, and now he freezes as men’s voices sound above and below, as machinery churns on, and the ropes begin to rattle against our not-so-secret hideaway. There’s a kind of inescapable operatic drama to it. I clutch my clothes around me as a Kilroy head peeps over the wooden wall at us. Then, everything goes black, sparing me further humiliation.
Six a. m. , my digital clock clicks out: I wake, painfully swollen, a state of arrested heat. I can’t do anything about it, not with H.snoozing beside me. Even in a dream, I can go only so far, and no further. But that’s only so far, so far.
Never mind. There’s another woman.
(Would I sound this melodramatic if I were speaking of H. ? But in fact I feel that badly deflated, as if this were real life, and I’d just met my rival for a man’s real affections.)
Maybe she’s just another me, someone new who has gone further in the short time he’s been on 75th Street. However it’s come about, they’re lunching together on the black rubber floor of the CitySteamers van, sitting like a couple of kids with their legs dangling over the bumper, a mess of half-eaten sandwiches and pickles on deli paper between them.
The howls and wolfish whistles I draw from the regular steamers’ gauntlet, brown bagging it along the sidewalk, are even more irritating than usual. My jealousy is noisy enough, filling my head with a fretful sound, a beehive hum. And I’m a drone, not the queen.
I tell myself, as I set out for home with Julia, that I won’t be passing there ever again.You’re turning here, you’re turning right now. . .
“N-o-o-o! Not this way! You have to go that way!” Julia whines, as she realizes we’re about to change course.
“I don’t have to do anything,” I answer evenly.
“Yes you do,” she retorts.
“No, I don’t,” I say. “But—I don’t care which way we go,” I add airily. You’ve got to pick your fights.”You want to go that way, fine. Because I don’t really care.”
She settles back into her stroller seat with a smug little smile. Mmmph! But I confess I want to see too.
The van’s rear doors are closed. I flash on the two of them, screwing at this very moment in that airless dark, a quintessential lunch-time quickie. She didn’t seem the type.(What does that mean? Do I?)
“Be happy, Mommy,” sings Julia helpfully.
“I am happy, Julia,” I lie. Fragments of forgotten afternoon rendezvous float, tantalizingly, across my mind. How hard it is to say good-bye. How careless you are of who’s watching as, tongues entwined, hands everywhere, you move against one another again, right out there on the street, not ready, never ready, to go your separate ways.
“Hi.” Julia says hello to everyone and anyone, from the most supercilious Zabar’s shopper to the seediest panhandler. I don’t think she recognizes him, half-shadowed by scaffolding, leaning against a supporting post.
“Hi,” he says easily. His teeth are very white, just crooked enough to be charming.”How are you today?”
“Fine.” Julia is always fine, except when she’s Not So Good, which she saves for me when she needs a little babying.
“How’s your Mommy?” He gazes into Julia’s clear, green eyes. But his voice is caressing in a way that’s meant for me. Julia stares back, as if she can sense something she can’t say.
“She’s fine, isn’t she?” I prompt, surprising myself.
“She’s fine,” Julia echoes, not at all interested in the words exchanged. She looks him up and down as she would a not-quite-real specimen at the Natural History. Which isn’t that far from the sensation I have, standing here beside him, watching his features change, listening to phrases fall from his lips.
“Bye-bye,” Julia briskly adds. When she’s finished with you, she’s finished. He laughs, a sharp little bark.
He shouldn’t be talking to us, I think resentfully, after— what? What he does is none of my business. The last thing I want is another accounting of breakfasts, lunches, dinners.
“ ‘Bye,” he returns. I’m already pushing her on. But his smile falls over us like some fabulous cloak unfurled against the dismal dripdrip of the steamers working up above. Recalling that, it’s hard to say, enough already; no more. Maybe there’s no other woman. Or there is, and it doesn’t matter. Or there is, and that makes things even more interesting. Isn’t there another man? But that’s different, isn’t it, my little secret, my own, small, so-called real life.
I don’t think of the steam man when I’m making love with H.Faceless men helping out once in a while are all right, as long as they remember their place. Using men I know, though—it’s too weird. I would no more conjure up a yellow suited phantom paramour while I’m in H.’s arms than I would literally bring him up here for a two-way.
But there’s no problem inviting him in when I’m alone. He can handle it, cooling things down when I’m burning. Sometimes, I mean, I can scarcely sit still at my desk after my walk back past his building. The stirring is like a cello string endlessly bowed; it’s too insistent to ignore. Sometimes, then, I need him, just a few minutes, just so I can get back to work.
And tonight, long after H. and I have finished—he, apologetically but instantly asleep—I find myself wide awake and aching again, aroused by nothing I can name, unless it’s the darkness, the closeness of the air in here. I slip on a tee-shirt and pad into the living room.
I sit on the couch, its leather cool against my thighs. A cat meows outside; otherwise, utter silence. A crescent moon glimmers through the casements. In the distance, a venerable West Side apartment house towers. I close my eyes and see my steam man clambering along the facade, dragging his hose, steam roaring out of the nozzle to crash like a wave against the weathered brick facing. He looks as glorious as Neptune astride the spume and spray of the ocean.
But the steam will quickly condense into a clammy gray liquid sluicing the dirt down over the ancient building. And he’ll be damp and chilled, boots and pockets sloshing full of recycled bleach solution: a beached fisherman, washed up onto Manhattan Island. I’ll have to strip everything—rubber outerwear, work clothes, white briefs and tee-shirt and socks—right off him, water pooling in the living room moonlight. And then: why can’t I imagine an ultimate Then? What I see, all too clearly, is that he looks like anyone else, pale soft-in-the-belly body, cold-shriveled cock, arms awkwardly dangling too. Always before, I’ve had him in full regalia (though accessible and able), no unzipping, no laborious stripping to the merely male. This is confusing. Not what I want. Which is clarity. A way to come quickly.
Today I stop in at one of those phony West Side “outfitters” to try on slickers. Just the hooded, sulfur-colored jacket; H. would split a gut laughing at the waders. Besides, this stuff’s not cheap, not cheap enough by half to indulge a private joke.
One day, long ago—in the sultry, summer school weeks when we were first secretly wanting one another, waiting for the whole thing to begin—H.and I left the library at the same time, and, impulsively, I trailed him, keeping his leisurely pace, pretending to window shop whenever I caught him glancing across the avenue.
As he turned down a side street toward the apartment in which we would soon make love for the first time, I found myself stopped at a silversmith’s. And I was reminded of the slender, silver ring H.wore on the little finger of his right hand, an odd, intriguing sort of ornament, it had struck me. Suddenly, I knew I had to have just such a ring. As a talisman, maybe; or as a pledge. So I went straight inside to order one. The very next day, I picked up the cheaply soldered bit of silver wire, which I wore on my right pinkie for quite awhile; I don’t know what became of it. H.never seemed surprised that we had matching friendship rings from the start of our friendship. I’m not certain I ever told him the truth.
And now, years and years later, here I am in this store— where people equip themselves for lives they don’t actually live—contemplating the purchase of one of these stupid mackintoshes.(Julia sits in her stroller, contentedly modeling rain hats.)
It’s something like the ring thing: a connection, but one that could never be decoded before I meant it to be. This classic working rainwear is standard issue in certain trendy circles. But it just isn’t me. I’m soaked in sweat under the rubberized fabric. Something is making me hesitate on the verge of even so casual, so comic, a commitment to the idea of this man, though my brain sometimes simmers with obsession. I walk out, Julia screaming “Hats!” I tell her I’ll take her over to the children’s store on Amsterdam to buy a nice, new raincoat, if they have the right kind. Yellow is a cheerful color on a kid.
Maybe I never intended to spend the time alone, shopping, stopping for a cappuccino, when I kissed them both goodbye, promising I’d be back in time to read Julia some good night books. Maybe I already knew then what I was up to.
I don’t have long to wait, anyway, already nearly six and the work winding down.(In fact, the ropes that hold the swaying work platforms aloft are literally being unwound just now, letting the men drift slowly back to earth, brilliantlycaped aerialists at the end of a show.)
It isn’t hard to pick him out either, even before they’ve shed their identical costumes. I can see his smile flash, his hands gesture as he comes down and down, then bounds onto the sidewalk. He disappears around the corner with most of the others, leaving two to seal the location for the day.
After ten minutes, I begin to worry. But four of the Caribbean steamers reappear in clean street clothes and very dark sunglasses. And he’s behind them, wearing blue jeans and a baseball jacket. He crosses the avenue toward me, jogging past an oncoming cab to make the light.
His hair is damp, combed back from his broad, high forehead, and his face is freshly scrubbed. He stops on the corner, turns his great head like a bear sniffing the wind for a scent and a direction. One hand slides under his waistband, tucking in the CitySteamers tee-shirt so that his sweet, hard gut swells out the phone number.
It’s so different, being near him without a big-eyed child in tow. The pleasure of watching his butt move beneath the worn seat of his jeans is extreme. I can barely see where I’m going. And it’s fine, though we’re bucking a home-bound tide of West Siders just off their buses and trains. As we reach 72nd Street, the Don’t Walk starts flashing and I stop short, which is when he decides to double back across Broadway, taking off like a shot for the rundown, red brick IRT station.
I feel my own legs pounding over the potholed road almost before I realize I’m running.
Some other time, I might find all the reasons and reasons to weigh, weigh myself down with. But as my fingers rummage desperately at the bottom of my purse, finally closing around a subway token, I realize this is all the reason I need at the moment. For once, I know what I want.
A train is pulling in at the Downtown platform, and I’m headlong down the staircase after him. It’s a local; he gets on. I get on, pushing past a small crush of passengers at another door. The closing chimes sound. He crosses and takes a seat. I find one right where I am.
He makes watching him easier by settling back and closing his eyes almost as soon as we’re moving. I’m always amazed at, a bit envious of, this way men have of making themselves at home anywhere, everywhere. I mean, I can no more imagine purposely shutting my eyes on the subway than I can opening my wallet and counting the cash in my lap.
Yet he looks so calm, so comfortable, so entirely at ease: a heightened form of self-possession. His hair has dried into soft ringlets, edging his brow. The eyelids are smooth and smudged with blue, as delicate as Julia’s. His long, blunt fingers are splayed on his thighs, which are also open, spread wider than the seat allowance. Men take the space they need in this world.
I can feel myself helplessly smiling as I imagine teasingly stroking his stubbled cheek, squeezing a muscled leg, the sight of him secretly teasing me. The improbability of our situation makes me feel as squirmy as my long-lost teenaged self.
And now, with the train shuttling downtown, stopping every ten blocks or so, and the man of my steam dreams safely sleeping, dreaming within arms’ reach, don’t I have time to think about where we’re going, where this whole thing is headed? To tell the truth, there’s too much goddamned thinking in my life as it is. I look around the car, a rush-hour crowd effaces nearly emptied of expression, eyes focused on nothing, mouths set against the stale underground air. No thinking here! You get on, fall into a seat, space out—and you’re there.
Meanwhile, he doesn’t open his eyes at a single stop, sleeps on past the big transfer stations, Times Square, Penn, 14th. I settle in for a long ride, ridiculously happy just watching him slumber, as we careen toward I don’t care where.
I don’t know how he knows when we’re there, either. But as the subway doors rumble apart at Chambers Street, it’s as if a little alarm goes off in his head: his eyes flick open, his casually dislocated body contracts, and he’s on his feet. I barely make it myself before the doors slam shut again. There’s a certain thrill in that. Then, a cold clutch of reality: we’re nowhere, and there’s no way to follow unnoticed.
But I’m more afraid of being left alone down here than of being caught. I’ve got to hustle if I don’t want to lose him.
The subway exit lands us on a traffic island, deserted and dim beyond a semi-circle of harsh streetlamp light. He’s already standing on one shadowy corner, waiting to cross. I’m so close, I could take his arm. I move past him, as the signals change, and then, he’s behind me, crossing the wide, dark avenue to the darker sidewalks south.Now what?
Asking him for directions seems too absurd. Anyway, I’m clear about where I am; the question is where I’m supposed to be going. I walk on as if I know, headed generally toward civilization. His footsteps make a heavy counterpoint to mine, and they keep right on along, right behind, and I relax and think, He’s following me now. I can feel my hips smoothly shifting, my legs stretching way out to take the pavement. I almost wish I were wearing heels, doing that strutting thing, tacktacktacktack, swinging my backside to keep my balance. But that’s a man’s fantasy. In flat, black crepe-soles, I can lead the chase, and still hear him coming.
When does it start to sink in, the sharp edge of the idea that I don’t actually know the man who’s trailing me in this dark, looming neighborhood? It takes awhile, because in a way, he’s nearly as familiar to me as H. But eventually, the image of a Page One New York Post headline begins to flash luridly behind my eyes.”Young(ish) wife and mother vanishes in lower Manhattan after evening shopping spree.” It’s not paralyzing, this kind of creeping anxiety; just sort of creeps in, especially since Julia.
This time, though, it’s far more infuriating than scary or funny. Whose fantasy is this, anyway? It seems too ridiculous to let my imagination. . .no, that’s wrong, I want to let it run wild, run away with me. As I never truly do. But not to let it run itself around in smaller, more timid circles: no chance I’m going to let that happen.
So I’m thinking, Come on; come on. And just like in a movie, here’s the Boho Bar, materializing exactly on cue out of the gloom. Couples sit drinking beer in the bright windows, blowing cigarette smoke toward the ceiling fans. I can see at once this place is safe haven, if that’s what I want. Bars like this offer the exquisite pleasure of not being able to do all you can imagine; they’re made for slow kisses and quick feels, for legs tangled and thighs rubbing beneath the tables as the drinks go down and the pulse quickens and steam begins to rise.
The entrance is on the side street. I hesitate, throw a glance over my shoulder, not (I suppose) entirely sure of him yet. And he isn’t there. I mean, it isn’t him, I’ve walked miles with another man—a stranger in the real, raw sense of the word—following close behind me. Instantly, I see the whole scene as if from a hovering helicopter. A New York Post helicopter.
If I weren’t so stunned by this shabby trick, I think I’d just sink down to the sidewalk and cry. What a fool I’ve been. The impostor maneuvers past with a brusque, “ ‘scuse me,” and goes through the brass-trimmed door without looking back. Perfect. Just perfect.
I’m late enough to have to make up a plausible story. And not altogether unhappy to hear that Julia’s having trouble sleeping; I sit in her room for almost an hour, working my way through the big book of Lullabies From Many Lands. It’s a small price to pay for straying out of the safety zone.
Later, on the news at eleven, there’s the daily subway crime story, punks throwing bottles from moving train, bottle smashing into woman’s face. It couldn’t have been me, I’m much too careful. Or lucky.”Lucky thing,” H.comments, “you don’t have to deal with the subway, now that you’re working at home.”
“I know,” I say. And realize that, all night since, I’ve actually been thinking, I am lucky, I’m very, very lucky.
This morning, after dropping Julia off, I stand in the bus shelter a few yards from the work site, heading uptown to do some research at Columbia. My view of the building is completely obscured by the sidewalk scaffolding. But I can see three men on the ground, rolling up hoses, fiddling with the controls on what I’ve imagined is the steam engine. The work scaffold lies on the ground nearby. Something clicks into focus. My recent nonchalance about walking by or not, my refusal to look up at the building at all if I do pass, has been so much false bravado. I’ve been stalling off admitting they’re at the end of this project.
I want coolly to wonder why it should even matter to me. I’ve been feeling steadier, less impulsive, lately; less fevered, not so full of dreams. Maybe I’d even begun to think I’d reached an end too. But now, I take the evidence of his imminent move like a body blow that leaves me breathless, unbelieving. What do I want? What do I want? I want him to be there; just to be there, that’s all.
I push my way to the back of the bus and the wide rear window. Are they really finished? My head throbs with the suspense. I twist in my seat, crane my neck trying to see as we pull into traffic. Irrational panic gives way to wilder relief: another scaffold is still up there, manned by two workmen (too small to make out, and steadily shrinking as the bus speeds up the avenue). They might even finish today. But it isn’t over yet.
There are heavy rains all morning, as I sit writing in the library’s main reference room; it’s still falling lightly as I walk down Broadway after lunch. So many things look unfamiliar to me, I feel as if I haven’t been out of the house in two years, though that isn’t exactly how it is. Dawdling, daydreaming, I’m late to pick up Julia for the first time ever.
Hurriedly stepping into the street, anxious to cross, I’m hardly aware of having scanned the horizon when I finally find him waiting on the far corner, directly opposite. I slow my steps, trying to collect my thoughts: thinking, first, that it isn’t his best angle; thinking, next, that he’s as beautiful as a man can be, in his battered, streaming steam gear. And (seeing the second scaffold swinging idly just above the pedestrian staging), I think, Nothing to lose, just smile, say hello, and: that’ll be that, end of story.
But some stories are more like dreams; we can’t control their endings, any more than we do their beginnings. Slowly crossing to the median strip, where tulips bloom amid weeds, slowly, steadily approaching him now, I’m feeling what a long time it’s been since we’ve come this close. I reach the curb and step straight up onto the square of sidewalk where he stands so solidly planted, arms manfully folded across his chest. I suppose there must be a glance toward, a glance away from me; but there’s no moment I’ll be able to look back to and say, He saw me. Not the way I’m seeing him. His eyes are dull as the drizzle, as if he’s had it, this damn job that’s taken so damn long.
I walk past. I appreciate a good ending, a clean finish; I don’t want to ruin this one, though it isn’t my own. The most elementary, and essential, fact about steam is that it’s ephemeral. I shouldn’t have forgotten that. But I’ve never needed to be told twice when time’s up. Even in fantasy, I won’t be that much of a fool for love.
I break into an easy run through the dismal mist. The throbbing under my ribs isn’t so much hurt as it is a new hollowness. Already, I’m wondering what I’ll do without some small, secret anticipation behind the ordinary business of my life, without this sweet distraction from all the day-today stuff. I hadn’t, it’s true, been entirely aware of missing it before; maybe it won’t matter so very much. I’ll just have to see how it goes, this summer. Supposed to be a scorcher. I’ve got to find out which playgrounds will have working sprinklers so I can take Julia to cool off: all those endless, sunbleached afternoons, those baking park benches reserved for mothers watching their children at play, women watching from the sidelines.