Today, in the subway, I noticed a young couple scrunched together in one of the turnstiles making out. It was a slow Sunday, one of the first real days of summer, and there were enough other turnstiles that no one was making a fuss about the one that was out of commission owing to the couple using it. They appeared to be joined at the hips like Siamese twins born facing one another, locked in a permanent embrace. If you looked closely, you could see them bobbing together lightly, like two little buoys on the sea.
I was waiting for my friend Chris, who was at the ATM replenishing her subway card. It was taking her a minute or two, and as I stood there I kept thinking that the couple would pull apart. How long could they stay like that, barely moving, crammed into that tiny space? But just as I was thinking that, wondering if they were really having fun, or if it was just some prolonged goodbye ritual they’d cooked up, the woman began rotating her hips in a tight little up and down motion, almost as if she were trying to balance a rubber ball in her navel.
In another minute, Chris was through the turnstile, and as we took the escalator down to the lower level, I asked her if she’d seen that couple making out.
“You couldn’t really miss them, could you?” she said in a curt way that surprised me, as if I’d asked her an intimate question that was well beyond the limits of propriety.
And that was that. She hadn’t spent nearly as much time watching the couple as I had, and her thoughts were focused on what I imagined were loftier things. Like how could a couple making out in the subway be interesting enough to even bear mention?
It’s funny how you can know someone for years, long enough to imagine that you do actually know them, without really having a clue.
It always felt that way with Chris. None of the dots connected to any of the other dots. And each new fact about her surprised me.
For example, she dressed in a way that reminded me of my mother. Shirts with scooped necklines. And decorative handbags with chains and doodads and patent leather shoes with buckles and tassels that spoke of complication — and of another era. But at the same time, she owned a sleek black sports car, and drove it fast, and was already on her third iPhone.
I knew that once she’d worked at a suicide hotline, but now was a library scientist. She was a vegetarian who wore leather. And she was a largish woman, who made tiny, perfect objects.
That’s how we met. She was the Tuesday night teacher at a ceramics studio in Chelsea halfway between her house and mine. And I had signed up for Tuesday night classes.
I’d started at the studio six months or so after Bill and I broke up. The whole time he and I were together, he kept saying I needed a hobby other than work. But it wasn’t until after we’d split up that I developed one. And the same was true in reverse. The whole time we were dating, I kept suggesting that he might want to talk to someone about some of the things that were bothering him. His employers for one. And me for another. But he didn’t start seeing a therapist until months after we were kaput, when another woman broke his heart.
Chris was a diligent and attentive teacher. She demonstrated techniques — for centering, and making tall pieces and flat pieces, and covered bowls, and things with handles. And for trimming the excess weight off a piece while it was still on the wheel, so it would be easier to finish later. And when people wanted to try out different forms, she’d research them and come to class the next week prepared to work it through with them. Yet for all that, she was somehow indecisive. When we went out to a restaurant after class, everyone would figure out what they were getting right away, except Chris, who wanted to read the whole menu, and consider every option, before committing herself to just one.
I stayed in Chris’s class for a year or so, until I worried that I was becoming part of a cult. A cult of single, straight woman of an indeterminate age, barreling toward spinsterhood at the speed of light. Then I switched out of Chris’s class and into the Wednesday class, with Ray. At first Chris was angry with me for defecting, but then she decided that I had a crush on Ray, the one straight male in the studio, and I was forgiven. (If Ray hadn’t been twenty years younger than we were, that might have been true. As it was, it wasn’t.) But I could hardly tell her the real reason: that it depressed me going there each Tuesday night. As if I had resigned myself to my loveless fate.
Normally, when Chris and I got together, it was to try some new restaurant in the neighborhood. We’d never actually hung out in the daytime before. But today we were on our way to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. To get there, you first had to take the tram to Roosevelt Island and then cross a footbridge into Long Island City.
The whole thing seemed like a great adventure.
The night before, when we’d spoken to firm up our plans, Chris had sounded bad. Frank, her cat, was dying, and she was afraid that each day would be his last. “I keep feeling like it’s all my fault,” she’d said. “If only I’d caught it sooner. Taken him to the vet before this. Now there isn’t anything we can do, except try to keep him comfortable …”
To hear her tell it, losing Frank would be like losing the perfect spouse: the lover who was so lovely that making love was like crossing over into a fourth dimension; the friend who laughed in all the right places; the mate you knew would stand by you if things ever got ugly.
I never imagined that Chris and I would get this far. I’d expected her to call and say she couldn’t make it, that Frank was barely moving at all and that she just couldn’t leave him in that condition. But here we were on the subway, on our way to the museum.
Chris told me that after she’d given Frank his shot, she’d done a little research about the neighborhood we were going to. It turned out that there were some restaurants near the museum, and she thought that maybe, if there was time at the end, we’d want to try one of them. She got a kind of faraway look in her eye, and I thought for a second that she was going to say she really couldn’t go through with it. That she was going to get off the train at the next station. But she didn’t say that.
Once I got a kitten for a friend who was into cats, but I’d never had one myself — I’d never had a pet of any kind — so it was a little hard making the leap to what Chris was going through. But I was trying. If I substituted “Bill” for “Frank” I could sort of get there. I tried to picture Bill on dialysis. Bill in a wheelchair. Bill in a hospital bed. But in each of those instances, it wasn’t really Bill I was picturing. It was some older, blander, nearly unrecognizable Bill. At a certain point I had to concede that what Chris was going through was beyond me. It wasn’t something she wanted to talk about in any case. To the extent that we had talked about it, I’d already made the mistake of suggesting that maybe, after a reasonable interval, when she felt ready, maybe she’d want to consider getting herself another cat.
Chris had shot me a look that made it very plain what a bad suggestion that was. From then on we’d kept to easier topics.
Though the tram was crowded, we were lucky enough to get window seats. It was a short trip, no more than 5 minutes, if you didn’t count the time waiting to board. But from that height, looking out over New York City, it seemed like anything was possible. It was the way I always felt driving back into the city after a day trip to the country. The lights and the energy were irresistible.
But almost instantly we were plunged from the dramatic vistas of the New York skyline to the pedestrian walkways of Roosevelt Island.
As we walked down a promenade filled with more people in wheelchairs than I’d ever seen in one place before, Chris filled me in on the history of the island. She was a fount of all kinds of strange information. And what she didn’t know, she looked up on her iPhone as we walked. Did I know that the island had once housed both a penitentiary and something called the New York City Lunatic Asylum?
The people we were seeing on the streets could easily have been the descendants of inmates and lunatics. (But then in a certain respect, maybe all of America could be. Wasn’t it the paupers and convicts who’d been rounded up for those first unbelievable journeys across the Atlantic, and into the unknown?) Maybe I looked worried, because Chris was quick to add that it hadn’t held a prison or an asylum for decades.
“That’s good,” I said.
Chris was talking and scrolling through web pages as we walked.
The mention of the word “lunatic” conjured another world altogether. When, I wondered, had the last person used that word not as slang, but as a bona fide medical diagnosis.
I asked Chris if she remembered the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, and she did. That strange building next to the Jefferson Market library, where the women used to hang out the windows and scream at the passersby.
“Now, this is interesting,” she said. “Did you know that it is believed to have been the only art deco prison in the world? And that Angela Davis was incarcerated there? And Andrea Dworkin?” She read a bit from Wikipedia about the famous feminists who’d done time there and later went public about the abuses they’d suffered.
“When did they tear it down?” I asked.
“What’s your best guess?”
“Oh god. Who knows? The early ’80s?”
“That’s so funny. That’s what I would have said too. It was officially closed in 1971, by Mayor Lindsay, and torn down in 1973.”
“That’s so strange,” I said. “I have such a distinct memory of walking by it and hearing the women. But I didn’t even live there then.”
As I tried to imagine the world before Wikipedia, I realized I really couldn’t. In some respects, time had stood still for me for years. And in others, the past had been erased almost totally, leaving only the faintest of traces. Fleeting half-memories of happiness that I’d clung to tenaciously, as if they were something you could freeze-dry and hold onto forever.
We crossed a footbridge into Long Island City and walked a quarter of a mile or so, until suddenly the museum emerged, a pristine cylinder block building tucked away in the middle of a dingy city street.
Inside, the place was more like a Zen temple than a museum. Ambling through it, we compared notes on which pieces we liked best. The serenity of the place, with its stark white marbles, reminiscent of the maoi of Easter Island, was magical.
Chris put away her iPhone.
I hadn’t been to a museum with anyone who made art since Bill, and I’d forgotten how much I missed it. Bill was a photographer, and even though he used to tear through an exhibit as if it were some kind of race, still I’d loved his eye.
Chris was just the opposite. She wanted to look at everything and read everything and know what I thought too.
When we were done looking, we settled into the rock garden for an afternoon concert by a jazz trio. Three music stands had been set up at one end of the garden, surrounded by a sea of little gray pebbles. Flanking the edges of the garden were shrubs and hedges that provided a backdrop for more of Noguchi’s stone pieces, and walled the place in from the outside world. We picked a spot about twenty feet away from the music stands, beside a pine tree that had been trimmed to look like a giant bonsai, sparse swooping branches in some places, and dense foliage in others.
Scattered beside us were families with small children, which is something you almost never see in New York, and older people, which is another thing you hardly ever see.
Soon after the concert started, I rolled my jacket up into a kind of makeshift pillow, and lay my head down on it. I closed my eyes in order to really hear the music. And for a while I was really hearing everything. I wouldn’t say I understand music — chord structures and tonal shifts, the mechanics underlying it. I don’t have the language to describe any of it. But I’ve always been a big fan all the same.
On one of our first real dates, Bill and I went uptown to hear a jazz concert. Somewhere in the middle of it, I took out a pen and sketched the sax player on a napkin. And he liked it enough to keep it. Long after he’d given up on us, he still had that napkin, framed in a little plexiglass box he’d picked up at the Rite Aid.
Later, after Bill was gone, it was music that saved me. I’d turn it up loud and dance around my apartment and tell myself that this is what it meant to be alive. It wasn’t a perfect cure, but it was a pretty good bandaid.
I must have dozed during off the concert. Because when I sat up again, the music had stopped and the musicians were packing up their gear. The couples and the families with children had already left by then. There were just a few older folks packing up their folding chairs.
And then I noticed that Chris was gone. At first I thought she must have taken herself to the bathroom, but then I saw her, hovering by the bass player, talking to him as if they were old pals. She looked animated and happy in a way I’d never seen before.
Chris isn’t really fat. But she’s a big woman with a very full bosom and silky brown hair. She’s good at maintaining herself with manicures and pedicures and regular haircuts. And she’s got the luminous white skin of a woman twenty years younger than she is. But for as pretty as she is, I’d never known her to be with a man.
I wasn’t sure if I should gather up my stuff and join her there with the musicians, or stay put where I was. If she was making a play for this guy, I didn’t want to interrupt at just the wrong moment.
I lay back down under the guise of sleep to consider my options. But I must have dozed off again. The next time I sat up, the musicians were gone, and so was Chris. As I stood up, I heard my phone bleeping.
Hi. It’s me. I didn’t want to disturb you. You must have been tired. You slept through nearly the whole concert!
It was hard to believe that, and even as I was listening to her message, I wanted to protest. The whole concert? It seemed so unlikely.
Anyway, something amazing happened. Bob, this guy I went out with for a while in college, was part of the trio. I kept looking at him during the concert. Trying to decide. Then at the end, I went up to talk to them — you know, to tell them how much I enjoyed their music — and it turned out it really was Bob.
So we’re going for a drink at a bar called Hemlock’s. It’s right next to Socrates Sculpture Park. Just down the street from the museum.
I’m hoping you’ll join us there when you get this message. You just follow Vernon Boulevard in the opposite direction from the way we came until you’re nearly to the entrance of the park itself. You can’t miss it.
It always unnerves me when people say, “you can’t miss it,” because of course you can. And if anyone can, I might very well. Directions have never been my thing. Until I met Bill, I didn’t even realize that you could turn a map in the direction you were traveling to get your bearings.
I looked at when Chris had sent the message, twenty minutes ago. It wasn’t so long that they might already have gone to the bar and left again, so I headed in the direction she’d said, up Vernon Boulevard toward the park, and then I tried calling her. No answer. I walked another block and tried again. Still no Chris. And then I put the phone away.
Already the sky was darker than when we’d headed out to the museum, like some sort of storm was kicking up. A part of me wanted to just head back home while I still could. Suppose I was on the tram when the skies let loose?
On the other hand, it seemed wrong to just vanish without making contact. And Chris was the one who’d downloaded the directions for our little expedition. I imagined I could just double back the way we’d come, or ask for directions if I needed to. But the path of least resistance was to just keep walking in the direction I was already headed. So I did.
In another five minutes, I saw a big neon sign that said “Hemlock’s — Where You Pick Your Poison.”
I took a deep breath, pushed through the door, and then waited while my eyes adjusted to the dark. It was the kind of old working man’s bar you used to see all over Manhattan, but now had to go out to the boroughs to find.
After a moment I spotted Chris, tucked into a booth for four. The place itself was nearly empty, as it was still officially afternoon. But the booth was full. Chris and her bass player on one side, and what looked like the other two members of the trio on the other.
There was no one at the bar, save for two old men peering into half-empty beer glasses, and a frisky young bartender with auburn hair talking into his cell phone at the other end. I imagined that if I heard him speak, he would have a thick Irish accent.
I was on the verge of turning to leave, when I heard Chris shout my name. “Over here.” I turned toward their booth and saw her waving. So I composed my face and waved back, as if I were happy to have been spotted.
As I approached the table, one of the musicians jumped up from his seat to make a space for me. He was tall and thin in the way I liked.
“Ah, the sleeping beauty has arisen,” he said.
I tried to hide my embarrassment. How in the world had I fallen asleep at an afternoon concert? And a jazz concert at that?
“I’ll just pull up a chair,” I said, buying myself an extra minute. I went to the bar and ordered a beer, and the bartender, who curled the phone into the crook of his neck while he took my order and pulled my black and tan, turned out to have a real brogue.
I dragged one of the stools back to their table. It was a little too high (I’d end up perched over everyone like some kind of big, hulking bird) but still it seemed better than being squeezed into the bench with no way out.
“Be right back,” I said. “Anyone need a refill?” It seemed like the words were coming out all staccato, like a telegraph.
“We’re set for now,” the tall thin one said.
It had been nearly three years since I’d been with anyone. Bill had long since moved on. He’d had one ill-fated relationship, and then he’d met someone else, and now he was engaged to be married at the end of the summer. In all that time, I had done nothing other than learn how to throw a few pitchers and bowls.
I headed back to the bar to pick up the beer that was waiting for me, and pulled out a ten. The bartender made change. And then there was nothing else to do. I took a sip, so I wouldn’t spill while I carried it back to the table. And then I took another large sip before setting it down and settling myself on my little perch.
An image of the young couple in the turnstile floated up out of nowhere: the young woman leaning into the man and gently pushing her pelvis into his.
“I know you’ll never believe this,” I said to the table at large, “but I really enjoyed your music.”
Chris looked at me as if she were about to say something and then she swallowed whatever it was.
“Thanks,” said the tall thin one. “I’m Rich. The drummer.” He extended his hand toward me, and we shook. It was good having a name for him, so I could stop thinking of him as the tall thin one.
Up close I could see that all of the musicians were about our age, which was older than I’d thought when we’d been watching them play in the rock garden. Next to Rich was Andrew, the piano player, who reached across Rich to shake hands as well. He had a little blonde goatee and long bony fingers, as if the years of practicing had stretched them to their final form.
Sitting on the other side of the table, beside Chris, was her bass player, Bob. He was a little rounder than the others, and more intellectual looking. Big brown eyes that seemed to be taking in everything all at once. I pictured him as the prime mover of the group. The one who wrote the music, and set up the rehearsal times, and kept the others in line.
Bob and I got away with waving at one another.
“I was just telling them how we met, when you walked in,” Chris said. “I was worried you wouldn’t make it.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said. I did my best to smile. “I called, but maybe you don’t have a signal in here.”
I took another sip of beer and wondered if she thought it at all strange that she’d left me there in the rock garden, asleep. But I knew that it wasn’t the moment to ask.
Rich tapped me on the shoulder as he tried to get up from his seat. I stood up to make space for him to pass by, and then he asked me if I had any music requests. “Hemlock’s has got a great juke box.”
“I guess you’ve been here before.” I rearranged myself on my perch.
“For years it was kind of my home away from home.”
“I had one of those too once,” I said. And I had. In the years before Bill, I’d virtually lived at a bar in Soho shooting pool against boys young enough to be my sons. I loved their swagger and bravado. And I loved beating them when they least expected it. Mostly, though, I loved how safe it was. The worst thing that could ever happen was that I would lose a game. For a time after that, I truly believed that I could tell everything important about a person from how they played pool. Did they want to win? Were they truth-tellers? Did they choke under pressure?
From the few times that Bill and I had played, I could see that he was erratic. He’d make two great shots, and then miss wildly for the next three. But nothing about how he’d played pool could have prepared me for how much I’d miss him once he was gone.
“What kind of music do you like?” Rich asked.
“What decade are we in?”
“You get to choose.”
“Dylan?” It was the first thing that popped into my head. An easy, safe choice.
“Consider it done,” he said. Rich was taller than me by a good ten inches, with a full head of hair and an easy smile. He had the kind of craggy good looks that work at any age.
“Blonde on Blonde? Highway 61 Revisited? Blood on the Tracks?”
“I’m easy,” I said, though Bill would have scoffed at that. His word for me had been “prickly.”
In another moment, Dylan’s sweet whine filled Hemlock’s. Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to … The songs went on and on. Sooner or Later. Just Like a Woman. Like a Rolling Stone. We sang along to the lyrics we knew. And gradually I started to feel a bit more like myself. And then there was just the music and the beer and Chris getting reacquainted with Bob.
He reported that he’d joined the Peace Corps after college; he’d been stationed in a remote corner of Botswana, fighting the fight against HIV/AIDS. It was the kind of thing people did back then, some people at least. They joined communes or the Peace Corps or taught junior high in the Bronx rather than heading off for their MBAs the minute college was over.
“Ooh,” Chris said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, well,” Bob said.
He explained that that was where he’d gotten really interested in music. Later, when he returned to America, he’d moved from city to city, trying to recapture that sense of vibrancy, until finally he’d settled in New York.
“So you’re here now,” Chris said. “That’s nice.”
There was that kind of lull that happens between strangers, where for a moment you can feel the tension while each person races to think of the next thing to say. Andrew, the piano player, wasn’t talking at all. Rich was still messing around at the jukebox. And I was coming up empty.
“How about you?” Bob asked Chris finally.
“Oh me,” she said. “I’ve been in the same apartment since college.”
“Well, I’ve traveled a bit, if that counts. But I’ve never really lived anywhere else.”
“It all counts,” Bob said.
Maybe I was wrong, but I thought I knew what he meant. At a certain point, you’re old enough that it does all count. You’ve put your time in, one way or another, and it has led you to where you are. The path you took might have led you somewhere else entirely; and different paths might have led to where you are. But, for better or worse, your path was your path.
I listened a bit more, until I felt like I was eavesdropping, and then I headed over to the bar for a refill.
Rich was chatting with the bartender, but he stopped when I wandered up. “There she is.” He flashed me a little grin.
“Bob was just giving me and Chris the back story,” I said.
Rich looked at me blankly.
“His years in Botswana.”
“Oh that,” he said. “I guess I didn’t miss a thing.”
“I guess that depends,” I said.
There was a hint of something I couldn’t even begin to guess at. So I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room.
“You’ll be back though, right?”
I nodded “yes,” but what I meant was “no.” I meant you’re a drummer. Who goes out with a 50-year-old drummer? And how many girlfriends do you have right now anyway?
Chris was reapplying her lipstick and fluffing her hair in front of the mirror. I thought she’d welcome a bit of privacy. But she hadn’t seemed to want it. “You having any fun?” I asked. I was talking to the Chris in the mirror, because the real one had her back to me.
She put the finishing touches on her lips and then she turned around and said, “I am.” Her nails were painted a strange iridescent blue – the way you’d imagine the moon, if you could see it up close.
“Me too,” I said.
“Rich is kind of cute, isn’t he?” she said.
“Almost too cute, you might say. He reminds me of Sam Shepard.”
“Yes, I can see that,” she said. “I don’t know if this is of interest, but Bob told me that he’s single.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“They started their trio when they went to some reunion and discovered that they’d all just recently gotten separated.”
“And they’re all still separated?”
“Andrew, the piano player, just got back together with his wife, but Rich and Bob are both in the middle of getting divorced.”
“Great,” I said.
“I know.” Chris was quiet for a minute. I wasn’t sure if she was thinking about Bob or her sick cat Frank or what.
In that moment, I knew that I never would ask her about what had happened in the rock garden. Why she’d left me like that. Whatever it was, it was done now.
When we returned from the bathroom, the three of them were back at the table, dissecting moments from the concert, and Otis Redding was on the jukebox singing Try a Little Tenderness.
“We weren’t sure you were coming back,” Bob said.
“Oh, we’re full of surprises,” Chris said in that flirty way I’d never heard before today.
Bob jumped up from his seat before Chris could sit down again. “May I have this dance?”
Chris looked startled.
“For old time’s sake.” Bob bowed from the waist like a maitre d’ or a butler or something, and she accepted. His jokiness had removed any danger.
The rest of us just watched, until Rich got antsy. “Hey, what about us?” he called out to Bob.
If he heard at all, Bob made like he didn’t as he twirled Chris across the floor away from us.
After another few bars of the song, Rich lifted me off my perch and onto our makeshift dance floor. We swayed and bobbed until the song ended and then Bonnie Raitt came on singing Have a Heart. Rich tapped out the rhythm on my spinal cord, gently inching his way up and down the vertebrae, as if they were part of an instrument he was just learning to play.
For a time that’s all there was. Rich and the music and the heat of his body next to mine, his fingers sliding up and down my spine.
“Not bad for a beginner,” I said.
“I’m a very quick study.”
“I never doubted it.”
Eventually, Andrew, the piano player, joined us. And then bit by bit, the dance floor filled up with other people we didn’t know. Regulars from the neighborhood, and tourists like us.
For an hour or more, we danced to songs you could dance to and songs you couldn’t, until we saw a crack in the sky, a bolt of lightning so bright it flared through the window of Hemlock’s, and the rain began.