It was the middle of spring, crossing Columbus Avenue in the fifties on my way to The Eastland in Kips Bay. She was running south down the sidewalk in a tan trench coat, and made the corner just as I stepped onto the curb. She grabbed my left arm with two hands. I knew she was young without turning my head.
“Tom,” she said in a voice meant to sound endearing, “how are you?”
She saw I didn’t recognize her.
“Tom,” she said, “We met at the Retner’s cottage in Westport. My God, it’s been six years this summer.”
She fought my interest to leave by touching me under the elbow. I could feel the precision of her nails against my arm from inside the coat.
“You must be joking, Miss we’ve—”
“Oh, Tommy,” she said, “do you remember what we had, when it was just the six of us those first weeks of summer? Jim never knew about us. Oh, I was at wits’ end when you left.” She spoke like a child, directly through the idiom to avoid sounding cliché.
“You ran down the street to tell me this?”
Her eyes were deep gray-blue. I couldn’t stop looking at them.
“Miss, I’m sorry. You’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“Oh, no I’m not,” she said as if she hadn’t heard the end of my sentence, but knew what I’d meant. “I remember you very well. I admit I don’t think about you as much since Jimmy and I got married, but I’ll never forget what we were like. Do you also think about Compo? Oh, damn Westport.” She finally looked away by rolling her eyes.
“Pardon,” I said. “I need to—”
“I’m so glad to finally see you again,” she said taking her hand from my arm.
She was smiling. Her voice had lost its recherché feature and sounded thin, as if she was hiding tears.
“You know I’ve been happy with Jim. We travel a lot, and we’re quite busy. We’ve been in Paris two years, visiting friends here in the good months. I thought about you so much before I was married, and in the beginning. It almost took me from Jim.”
She put one hand to her eye and dabbed, but there was no proof of tears.
“I thought about, oh, you’ll think I’m silly,” she said.
I moved super-voluntarily in the direction I had been heading.
“No,” I said.
I turned to my right, facing east so that I was looking at her squarely, because she had moved in the direction I had inched, and took her face in again when I looked at her eyes.
“I just wondered what my life would be like if you had proposed to me.”
You mustn’t think that, I wanted to say, but I was pushing myself from inside to say something to leave faster.
“You need to understand,” I said.
She looked up at me.
“I’m not the guy you’re thinking of.”
She wasn’t frantic or cloying, but earnest and assertive. If I knew this girl was sane, I’d be trying to get her into the nearest building to paw her up.
Her lips were compact but full toward the center. Each side had a sharp, upturned corner. They were slightly parted, her mouth looked like a tiny hot spring. I wanted to see the lips move again but she was still, and the lips were as still and serious as her gaze. She was trying to impart her fantasy on me.
I took hold of her under the elbows, moved my gaze from her eyes, saw the green and white of the dress she was wearing, and a line between her mostly hidden breasts. A necklace of pearls, the jewelry of an older woman, looking charming on her, the iridescent opacity against her brownish skin.
“I’m not the person you’re looking for.”
She kept a resolved gaze on me.
“I’m absolutely certain you are.”
She touched my cheek with her fingers curled into her hand so that the skin of her phalanges brushed it.
“I don’t know Retner,” I said. “My God,” I smiled, “I wish I had been there.”
“Jesus, Tom. How else would I know your name?”
She looked as if she could cry, but out of strength that came from having prepared to speak to me, she did not, and only showed me what the face would look like if the tears had come.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “What direction are you heading in?”
“South, clearly.” She turned her head slightly to one side and orange sunlight crossed her face.
“If you’re not in a rush, we can ride together to where I’m going and talk on the way. I’ll pay the driver to take you where you need to go after that.” I was already hailing a cab.
“You’re headed?” she asked.
I opened the cab door.
“28th and 1st,” I said.
“Ok,” she said.
On 54th Street we got into a cab without speaking, and were in route to The Eastland.
“Tom,” she said at the first light. “It’s your family’s cottage. Jake Retner is your uncle. What are you trying to pull? You work for Retner. Or, you did when we knew each other.”
“What does Jake Renter do?”
“Architect. You’re a building contractor. My God—” she sighed. “You don’t have to do this with me, even though I have feelings for you, I don’t expect anything. I was just overwhelmed when I saw you on the street.” She put the back of her head against the headrest, a hand to her forehead, and shaded her face. “I’d been waiting, oh, God. I thought I was never going to get to tell you—”
She turned violently at the neck toward me, her hand was gone from her face.
“I was desperately in love with you and that’s why I kept it.”
“Kept it?” I was amused by the vulnerability.
“You impregnated me on the beach.”
I nearly laughed out loud. “Impregnated” was the phrasing of an adolescent who had had too much responsibility pushed upon her. She rolled her head to the right, and looked out the window, then rolled it back to face me, and smiled. Her face was round, rather small, but did not compromise her look. It was the face of a petite woman. Her dark hair came down in a heavy draping to her eyelids, to her shoulders, over both sides of the ears, keeping the tops of them visible. I thought about what it would be like when we parted company and wondered if I could see her again. Maybe once. Maybe a few times in privacy.
“Do you realize,” I said to her, “that I am in pictures? You may have seen me in one.”
She didn’t respond.
“May I have your name?” I asked.
“It’s Nora! she shouted. “Nora Chase, and you loved me in Westport two summers ago!” She paused, we were silent and still. She turned her gaze to the window.
“None of it is your fault. I encouraged you to do it, and took the consequences well and square. My husband thinks your child is his.”
“Well, Mrs Chase,” I said. “I am in pictures, and you may have a dear lover who looks just like me. Did you notice the people looking as they passed us? I might have been approached if it hadn’t been easy to assume we were engaged in something private.”
“We were,” she said. “Oh God, and we could be. That’s the humiliating truth. I’m in love with you.”
“Nora, look at me,” I said.
She turned, and I was looking at the gray-blue slates above her nose, deeply interested in the movement the light made over them.
“It’s crucial you understand this.”
Just before I was going to reveal to her I knew she was insane, I imaged walking toward her on Compo beach, the cottage above us, the others already porch side with drinks, giving us the privacy we wanted to take in the last of the sun. As the sun went low, the orange light deep-colored over the sound, the air chilled us coming out of the water, and everything was several shades darker in one-quarter hour. She dried herself before tossing the towel to me, I barely dried myself before hurrying down to steal her body warmth as she giggled. Her eighteen-years: some wet petal, the perfect utterance of two people I haven’t met was rising to the dominance it was entitled to for twenty-years.
The present, greater beauty, watched me with the same clever curl of upturned, pink flesh pressed together with a line drawn through its middle. Our hands moving over our shivering bodies at dusk. Her inner thighs rubbing my outer thighs, kissing in frantic sips. The flash of eyes that grace flees from, once their full, imposing sight is witnessed.