I saw her before she saw me. A proud affect but generous smile, a turquoise wrap, a blonde shoulder-cut: not too long (not too young). I could hear her admission in my head, spoken with a wink: There are certain things one must accept with age. From the blurred corner of my eye I could make out the bright red of her lips, the dark contour of well-made eyes. She paused at the table over my left shoulder, thanking the waiter like an old friend, the kind of woman who owned a dog, a small dog, a city dog as they say here.
I felt her eyes on me as I turned back to my journal, felt the burn of her curious stare: A young woman, alone, on a Saturday afternoon? Hers was a life of faded curiosities, memories of gilded grandeur and headline parties, now a sepia echo in her mind, kept alive, artificially, in photos, individually framed, of course, that frosted every surface of her Manhattan apartment. She must live nearby, I decided. She had the bearing of a regular, but not too regular. Just the right amount, just enough to keep them guessing.
Light cut down through the glassed courtyard, cold but bright. There’d been snow the day before, but not today. Today was a day you could believe spring was coming. A strange day for a young woman to be alone, here. I guessed she hadn’t come for the exhibits, had probably stepped through the red-velvet rooms countless times. No, she was here for the place, the atmosphere; her favourite drink, perhaps: The Riesling, thank you darling, it is lunchtime after all.
I’d ordered the devilled eggs, an entrée, of course. The only thing on the menu without bread attached to it. Protein was all one needed these days, apparently, especially if one were slightly militant about those things. And I was. I hadn’t eaten all day, but still the entrée was only an adornment for my drink, to make sure not too many eyebrows were raised. I knew that when my drink came she would stare harder: Who is this sassy girl, on her own on a Saturday afternoon?
I decided to ignore her, ignore my sense of her, and attend to the journal. I had promised myself I would write, every day, but of course I hadn’t. How do you put these things into words? All these moments, all these instants of awe. The illuminated Dante. That had been the one, my breath-taken moment. Hadn’t it? What about the scribbled entry from Thoreau, in its pre-Walden, anecdotal rawness? Or the barely legible Beethoven, a piano trio, I think. My hands tingled at the memory, a moment already glistening like a fantasy in my mind, as if it happened years ago, to someone else.
My food came, four lonely half-eggs on a plate. And then the main course, the one I couldn’t resist: The Hemingway. The menu had mis-referenced, of course, it had been Ford who’d championed the three-martini lunch, an American rite of passage. Hemingway, though, was more romantic. I loved martinis, I loved Hemingway (who cares about Ford, really?), and I loved doing ridiculous things on Saturday afternoons, on my own. So here they were, three one-ounce perfections, a twist, an onion, and an olive.
I was sipping my second when she made her move. “Excuse me, do you mind if I sit?” Her voice was hoarse, a smoker from decades past. I smiled, nodded, gestured, gritting my internal teeth, actually, no, I’m writing, can’t you see? But who was I kidding? I had time for her. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a woman who can take on gin before three pm.” I looked up, actually tilted my face, now, seeing her eyes for the first time. Deep brown, chocolaty almost, ironic, incisive, and sparkling, yes I know, a cliché, but I had never, before now, seen someone’s eyes truly sparkle.
I was thrown. “Say, where’s your husband, darling?” She didn’t shift her gaze from mine, didn’t look at the ridiculously large diamond on my finger. Her voice, underneath the deep husk, was smooth, direct. A singer’s voice. I smiled again (yes, I smile a lot; it’s disarming and I like the upper hand). “He’s in Midtown,” I hear myself saying. “Waiting for me, actually. I’m late.” She snorted a conspiratorial laugh. I hadn’t meant to say it, she knew that. It was the twist talking. “You stood up your husband for a drink? My, my, I thought we’d have a lot in common…”
She asked about my accent, asked about my husband, asked about my life, my tastes, my desires. And I told her everything. Me. Usually the grand deflector, the one who holds the brief on everyone else, cards firmly to my breast. The afternoon seemed unreal, suddenly, like a dream, like a story, a narrative beyond my control, and I thought to myself, who is this woman, this woman who has disarmed me?
Out on the street I wrapped my scarf tight beneath my chin, felt the trailing end float behind me as I turned my head to cross the street. I ran through the cold, bright, ringing streets, ran west to my husband in Midtown, heels tapping clear on the grimed pavement. People stopped to watch me pass, cheeks flushed, and I was filled with a wondrous, ethereal awe of the world. Call me, she’d said, and she made me write her number down. A landline, I smiled, she was too proud for anything less. I thought of her smile, that direct, no bullshit smile, and the sparkling eyes and I thought,