Chrissie’s just leaving the office when she sees him standing at the 23rd St subway entrance, looking up at the sky.
When his eyes drift down to meet hers, the jolt of sudden intimacy sends her walking in the opposite direction.
She never took the New York City Subway. She hated its screeching, clanking trains with doors that slammed too quickly shut, the sweaty men that stood too close and stared too long. Walking kept her in good shape, anyhow.
She had a choice. Walk back up Broadway via Times Square, check out the picture houses and theatres, or up Fifth Avenue and then cut across to Columbus Circle.
She went up Fifth Avenue.
Usually, she’d slow down to a stop outside her favourite stores to browse the window displays. Bonwit Teller, Saks, Bloomingdale’s. But this time, she didn’t slow down. She can feel his eyes on her as she walks. She confirms it with a glance over her shoulder.
He’s following her, half a block behind—tailored grey flannel suit, trilby angled just right.
Something about his expression, too, like he’s laughing at the whole damn charade. Like he knows where this is all going to end up sooner or later.
She turns on to 54th to Broadway and stops outside The Green Giant. One of the dozens of bars on the forty-five-minute walk between her office and her apartment. Every one of which she’d had a drink in at one time or another.
What should she do? Keep walking, hoping to lose him on Broadway? Or go inside The Green Giant?
She goes into The Green Giant.
She sees Herb, the barman with the walrus moustache and the shaved head. The man with the red hair, one leg over the other, back against the wall, whispering to a young lady. The old Russian lady in the black dress and veil, nursing a glass of scotch in the corner.
She strides through to the ladies’ restrooms at the back, where she locks herself in a cubicle, closing the toilet lid, covering it in paper and sitting for a while.
The man hasn’t followed her in. Why would he?
She didn’t have money, looks, or even youth—just another office girl in the typing pool at Marshfield, Moreland and Merritt Associates.
The back of her throat starts to burn from the Clorox they use to disinfect the restrooms. She leaves the cubicle, straightening her skirt and checking herself in the mirror.
She looks tired. Time to get a Tom Collins from Herb and then call it a night. Back to her one-bedroom apartment. Listen to the radio. Eat something. Cold cream on the face and hands, set her hair and go to bed.
As soon as she’s through the restroom doors, she sees him.
He’s sitting at the bar, watching her, trilby on the bar next to him revealing a full head of golden hair, cut perfectly with a razor-sharp side part. Still smiling that smile like it’s all a big old gag, and she isn’t in on it.
There’s a glass of Tom Collins waiting on a napkin. Waiting for her. He pats a bar stool with his hand.
She wants in on the gag. She doesn’t feel her legs moving her as she floats over to take a seat next to him. She avoids his eyes, staring straight ahead, not wanting to see his stupid face any more than she has to. She takes hold of the Tom Collins. Condensation on the glass slicks against her fingers.
She takes the cherry out by the stalk and takes a sip, and oh boy, it’s been a long time since she had a proper drink, and it’s real good. Like Freon going straight down her throat, shooting through her veins, calming her. She sees a discarded New York Times on the bar. Fur coats are in, which strikes her as insane in New York in July. She waits for him to speak.
Eventually, he does.
“You know New York has some pretty good beaches?”
She just about manages to stop herself turning to look at him straight away. Instead, she lets her eyebrows go up a fraction. His voice sounds nice. Smooth. Casual. Friendly. All the things she’d want a man’s voice to be.
A song’s playing on the jukebox, turned down low for the after-work crowd. It’s a song she knows—Dinah Washington, What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.
She strains to hear the words, then the song’s over. He’s still waiting for her answer, so she turns to look at him, and that stupid smirk is gone. He’s looking at her differently, as though he’s genuinely curious to know whether she knows that New York has some pretty good beaches and what the hell kind of question is that anyway?
Her mouth is suddenly dry. She wets it with a gulp of Tom Collins and shakes her head.
“Does that line work on other ladies?”
He shakes his head, smiling. “No.” She notices he hasn’t got a drink for himself.
“No, it doesn’t work on other ladies?”
“You ain’t other ladies. You’re special.”
“Well, I honestly didn’t know New York has good beaches. But I know that now if you’re to be believed.” He says nothing. She rolls the rest of his words around in her head. “I’ll bite. What’s special about me, anyhow?
He smiles. “You’re destined.”
“Destined, destined for what?”
He points up at the ceiling, letting his eyes drift up.
She looks up too. There’s nothing special or destined up there, just an ornamental ceiling, plaster cracked, stained with cigarette smoke, tide marks of old water leaks.
“What’s up there?”
“Millions of stars. Other planets. Waiting for you.”
“Above an Irish bar in midtown? Right.”
He smiles, bashful. Every glance she steals in his direction builds a pretty picture. He gets cute dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. He has nice teeth.
“I know. I sound crazy, right? But ever since I ascended, I’ve not been able to stop looking up.”
“Ascended?” She remembers him standing by the subway looking up—his beatific expression, like a saint looking upon the face of God.
“I was on Brighton Beach when they came for me. Now it’s your turn.”
“Brighton Beach? Out by Coney Island?” Now she’s noticing his baby blues. So pale they’re light grey, like the sky after a storm.
“Yeah. I was walking there one night, alone. I’d been on a date with a girl. The date didn’t go so great, so I put her in a cab home and took a walk on the beach by myself. Took my shoes off, just to feel the sand between my toes.”
“Then next you knew, you found yourself being poked and prodded by little green men. Got it.” She takes a big gulp of her Tom Collins, trying not to let her hand tremble.
He laughs. She likes his laugh. It’s warm, like his voice. She looks over at him, just to see his dimples more than anything, and to wonder what he’d be like in bed.
“Honestly. My life changed when they came for me. And now it’s your turn.”
“No thanks. I’m not buying what you’re selling.”
“Yes, you are.”
“How the hell do you know what I want and don’t want? We just met.”
“We’ve been watching you a long time, Chrissie.”
She feels a falling sensation in her gut like the office elevator when it descends too fast. She thinks about what they’ve watched her do.
Her morning walk from her apartment to her office. Her evening walk from her office to her apartment. Weekends of nothingness. Errands. Shopping. Cleaning. Going to the pictures to watch Imitation of Life and Porgy & Bess and Some Like It Hot and Wild Strawberries and waiting all the while, waiting for what?
He waves her thoughts away with a dismissive hand. “You don’t need that life. This is better.”
She nods and finishes her Tom Collins, thanking him and leaving.
Except she doesn’t. She loses herself instead, her memory cutting out like a TV signal.
Just like one of her nights out in the old days. From shimmying in the Mocambo to sitting behind a velvet rope in The Coconut Lounge, no idea what happened in between or how she got home, gaps between memories lengthening.
It’s still light when she finds herself again.
She’s on Brighton Beach boardwalk, feet still moving one in front of the other. Did she walk all the way here? Fifteen miles? The man is still talking, his voice so calm and sure of itself as they pass the Russian shopfronts, the silhouette of the Coney Island Thunderbolt in the distance.
He guides her by the elbow to a bench, looking out over the sand.
“This is where they’ll come for you.”
She nods, her hands feeling paint flaking off wooden slats.
She looks out at the water. Breezy Point just there, Sandy Hook a bit farther out. Beyond that, just Atlantic. A tugboat sounds its foghorn. The smell of the water is brine and diesel and dead things.
He crouches at eye level with her.
“I have to go. I can’t be here when they come, you see.” He stands to go, adjusting his trouser legs at the knee.
A question swims up in her mind. “Did you slip something in my drink?”
He shakes his head, a smile dimpling his cheeks. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
He adjusts his trilby, and then he’s gone.
The sun is receding across the water. She looks over her shoulder at the skyline softening in the sunset. She can just close her eyes for a moment, and she won’t miss a thing.
A memory comes to her, maybe a dream. She’s with Dora in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She only went along because Dora said she might find it interesting, that she might learn something, and she’s sitting there listening to these men and women talking about how they get through their days.
She remembers how she shook her head without shaking her head, thinking that she’s not like them; she could never be. But there’s something just outside her grasp, a realisation of something. It’s in the sideways looks Dora’s giving her.
After that, she stopped going to the Mocambo and Dixie’s and Benny’s and The Coconut Grove. But by then, it was already too late.
A man’s touching her shoulder, shaking her gently. “Lady. Lady, you okay?”
Her mouth’s so dry. She squints against the bright sunlight.
Her watch says it’s just before nine. Behind her, the boardwalk clatters to life with the tread of shoes starting their day in the city.
She stands and walks, smoothing her skirt and checking her purse.
She still has her money. Her keys. Everything.
She needs to get to work. She’ll never make it on foot, so she takes the subway for the first time in years. She just about manages it, eyes tight shut, facing away from all the people, biting down a scream.
She’s only five minutes late to her desk at Marksfield, Marland and Merrick Associates. Will anyone notice she’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday? Probably not. Her hair is fine. Her makeup looks just as it did. She’s still invisible.
She begins typing address labels, her memory of the strange man at the bar already fading. Only the outline of him left, not the detail. What was his name, anyway?
The day passes, like all the others before it. She steps out of the office and instinctively looks across to the subway. He’s not there, staring up at the sky.
She looks up at the seagulls whirling in the gaps between the skyscrapers. Ten years in this city, and she can’t remember if she’s ever looked up.
When she looks down, things are different. The sidewalk paving is a slightly different kind of stone. The cars somehow altered. The brickwork of the buildings around her is coarser. The light falling different. Everything off-kilter.
She stops outside The Green Goblin. Something’s different here too, but she can’t put a name to it. She should check on something inside. She doesn’t know what it is, but she puts her head around the door to see what’s happening, all the same.
Harry, the barman with the mutton chops and his hair slicked back. The red-haired businessman with one leg over the other, back against the wall, whispering to a young man. The old Greek widow nursing a gin and tonic in the corner.
He’s there at the bar, the man from the other night. Leaning in close to a woman, his hand sketching invisible diagrams in the air as he whispers words into her ear.
Chrissie turns and walks faster than before, looking over her shoulder to ensure no one is following. A bath would do her good. Maybe call someone. Who could she call? There’s no one.
Her apartment is on the third floor of a converted tenement north of Columbus Circle. The new supervisor doesn’t even look up as she passes.
Her key doesn’t work. It won’t even fit in the lock.
She walks back down to the supervisor.
“Excuse me, sir. My key doesn’t appear to be working.”
The supervisor’s an old Black man. Salt and pepper hair. Teeth all ground away, his mouth closing all hinky. He takes a moment to appraise her, his face cool. Whatever she looks like right now, she still looks like someone who lives in this block, so he nods, stands. He opens a drawer and takes out a jangling ring of keys. His arthritic hand grasps the wooden rail as he pulls himself up the stairs to 9-B with her.
He sorts through the keys on the ring and unlocks the door.
Christine thanks him and walks into her apartment and hears a sound she’s never heard before in all the times she’s stepped over the threshold: the sound of her shoes clicking and echoing on a bare wooden floor.
No rug. No ottoman, no settee, no framed poster of Gold Diggers of 1933 on the wall. No bed, no dressing table, nothing.
She can’t look the supervisor in the eye as she thanks him and walks back to The Green Goblin, her feet gathering momentum with each step.
By the time she barrels into the bar, her feet are only just keeping up with her as she claps him on the back, hard. He chokes like she’s dislodged a chunk of steak in his windpipe and turns with an exclamation. “Say, what’s the big idea?”
Her angry retort dies in her mouth as she takes in his face.
He still has that beautiful golden hair, but the rest has changed. His face is puffy, dimples fattened out and drooping eyelids hiding his baby blues.
He’s trying to place her, squinting at her face as if through a fog.
“Where are my things?” she asks him.
He replies with something about the science not being exact, but all she can do is stare at his mouth opening and closing and his hands making placating gestures, at the woman next to him so young, Harry watching it all.
Then she’s back on the bench on Brighton Beach once again, looking out to sea. The man crouches in front of her, casting glances over his shoulder at the water.
“I’m dreadfully sorry about this. I’m sure they’ll be along presently.”
“Can you see about getting my things back?” she’s asking, but he’s already standing and walking away, and she can’t take her eyes off the water, waves rolling in the distance like a monster turning in its sleep.
She hears the cars rattling around the old wooden Thunderbolt coaster in the distance, passengers screaming.
Then she’s thinking about the last time she saw her mother. 1949. Standing on the porch, waving her off, waving her away. Kennebunkport seems a long way away, such a long time ago. She wishes she could go back.
Then she’s awake again, and the sun’s so bright.
Once again, she braves the subway, eyes squeezed tight, covering her ears with her hands against the screech of metal on metal, hoping they can’t hear the scream in her throat, and she’s only ten minutes late to Monksfield, Milland And Merry Associates. Her makeup and clothes are the same as yesterday and the day before. She’s still invisible. Towards the end of the day, someone comes by her desk and tells her not to come back tomorrow. She looks around the room, everyone so much younger than her. If only they knew. She nods and leaves.
Outside the office, things have changed again, but not in any way she can describe. The shapes of the cars, the way they move. The colours and textures of the sidewalk and the buildings. She squints slack-jawed at the sky until a commuter jostles her out of the way.
She walks past The Green Cage, feeling like she should look inside but not sure why.
She goes into The Green Cage.
Henry, the barman with the shaggy beard and bald head. The red-haired woman with one leg over the other, back against the wall, whispering to a young lady. The old Armenian widow in the black dress and veil, nursing a Bloody Mary in the corner.
She looks at the empty bar stool, trying to remember who used to be there.
The only place she has left to go is the bench at Brighton Beach, so she goes there and sits, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Another memory comes to her. The first night she came here, the man’s fingers gently pressing against her elbow. She’d asked him a question.
“Does it hurt?”
He’d looked at her, surprised. He shook his head no.
“No, it’s kinda strange. You’d expect it to. You’re waiting for pain, immense pain, but that pain never comes. Do ya get it? Everything changes all around you, and you feel like you’re going to die, but then you’re out the other end, and you just feel nothing but relief. That everything’s going to be all right.”
“So, everything is going to be all right?”
“Sure, it is, Chrissie. Sure, it is.”
Chrissie Reed feels the sun on her face, the paint on the bench flaking off under her fingers, and she feels a huge weight lift. A weight she’d carried all her life, without even knowing it.
All those expectations and ambitions and possessions and fashions and hopes of finding a man were gone.
She couldn’t go back, she couldn’t go forward, but now she was truly free.
Chrissie ascends from the bench, smoothing her skirt and kicking off her shoes and setting them carefully on the bench, side by side. She sees them as if for the first time. Periwinkle pumps with a slight heel and holes in the toes that she’d walked the sidewalks with every day, first in one direction and then in the other.
She glances at the boardwalk, at the store fronts with their names in Russian and English, as she surreptitiously unrolls her pantyhose, balling them up and tossing them in the trash can.
She turns away from the bench and walks down the beach, feeling the sand between her toes just like the man did after his date went bad.
She comes to the edge of the water—dark rainbows of gasoline shimmer on the surface. The smell is still there, of brine and diesel and things long dead.
She looks down the beach, at her own shadow lengthening on the sand. A bodybuilder sits in the distance, looking out over the water as his girlfriend rubs balm into his giant, ham-like shoulders.
She takes off her skirt and sweater and shirt and all her cantilevered undergarments, folding them in a neat pile.
She takes a step into the water, warmed all day by the sun. She can’t remember the last time she went swimming. With her mother, perhaps? She trips over a piece of driftwood and stumbles forward. The shock of the water sets her arms and legs moving, and before she knows it, she’s swimming.
A man approaches a woman on the boardwalk. He’s old. Shoulders hunched forward. He turns his trilby with knotted fingers bent and twisted by age.
He licks quivering, sunken lips before asking, “Say, is your name Christine Reed?”
The young woman shakes her head no. The man reaches for his handkerchief, mopping the beads of sweat from his face. She’s admiring the shoes on the bench as he yammers on about a terrible mistake made, terrible.
He follows her gaze, first to the shoes, then the footprints in the sand out to the water, where a woman swims with long, confident strokes that take her farther and farther from shore.