National Guardsmen Roamed the Subway

My neighbor had been what kept me from lingering too long on my walk home from work (thirty-seven blocks door to door, four of them avenue-sized), double-timing the blinking crosswalks rather than waiting for the next light. If I left exactly at six, I might see him coming up the street at 6:45.

But without him at the far end of the journey, I had come untethered, and found myself slowing down (even as it got brisker and people began to hurry more desperately to their destinations), letting things catch my eye, then following them to see where they might lead. This time between work and home became, for me, free time—in the most liberating sense of that phrase—not only idle time, or spare time, but permissive time, consequenceless time. I felt emboldened by this three-quarters of an hour, and began looking forward to it, depending on it and, as a result of it, came into possession of a new sort of confidence. I would look at passing strangers full in the face now. I noticed couples clutching at each other with stunned, smitten grins. Why couldn’t I have that, I thought. I also thought, I’m not married. So it would be accurate to say that during one of these forty-five minute intervals, feeling confident—feeling desirable in my confidence—the idea of cheating on Jenny occurred to me.

It was February, and I’d just emerged from a windowless coffee bar near work with my afternoon two percent almond steamer buzzing hot in my hands. The weather had broken while I’d been inside. The sun was out. The gutters were streaming, and the roofs and awnings and window ledges ticked and dripped; and it seemed that even color itself had thawed because Duane Reade’s neon sign had never been more saturatedly red or blue than it was right then, and I thought, My God, I’m alive! I breathed deep, deep, and held out my arms. I twirled and knew, twirling, that I must have looked like an idiot, but didn’t care enough to stop myself. I felt suddenly, inexplicably glad for my life and all its possibilities.

A woman nearby, waiting at the intersection, smiled.

I smiled back. “Finally!”

“I wouldn’t get too excited,” she said. “It’s supposed to get into the teens again tomorrow.”

I felt strapping, like a soap-opera doctor about to ask his naughty co-star to scoot up onto the examining table. “You have nice lips,” I said.

We both seemed a little shocked at that. Her expression flickered. “I don’t think I like where this is going,” she said.

“Tell me your name.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Listen.” I stumbled on. It was exhilarating. “What are you doing now? Talk to me, just for a bit. I’m harmless, really.”

“This is talking, right now. What do you want?”

“I mean to sit down, have a cup of coffee with me. Or here—” I held out my steamer. “I didn’t drink from it yet. I promise. Come on, I’ll buy myself another.” The light had changed and the woman was already halfway across the street. I called after her, “But I’m not the kind of guy you think!”

Someone next to me said, “What kind of guy are you then?” >

It was the woman from upstairs. I hadn’t seen her since our encounter in the hallway. My confidence wilted before her. “That’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that.”

“You didn’t do all that much,” she said. “Look, she’s getting away! If you hope to get anywhere with some women, let me tell you, you’re going to have to be a lot more persistent.”

“I’m on lunch,” I said, as if this explained something essential.

“Where do you work? Are there any openings?” Her sense of personal space was off by an inch or two. There was a glittering diamond blemish in the crook of her left nostril. I must have had my hand out still because she took my drink from me and had a sip. “I was thinking about checking out the park myself. You have a girlfriend, don’t you? I can tell.”

This was the crazy younger sister of the woman I’d just propositioned, I thought; she seemed to be in receipt, at any rate, of someone’s hand-me-downs. The furry hood of an enormous parka rimmed her little face. She had on a flowered peasant dress, striped leggings and purple sneakers.

She said, “When you twirled around like that? I totally felt the same way. Isn’t it—” A crosstown bus huffed around a corner, nearly sideswiping her. She didn’t seem to notice. “Life’s just—Ah! Too much sometimes, I don’t know what to do with myself, I get so worked up about it.” There was, as well, a kind of ravaged look to her—or so I fantasized—like she’d hastily reassembled herself after being fucked in a stairwell. I had a picture, suddenly, of her inner thighs glistening post-coitally, her panties stuffed in a coat pocket.

We found ourselves back at the dim coffee bar, men in suits lined up in front of us. What was gloomy about this place before now made it seem warm, cozy.

She said, “You should get an eggnog latte. Doesn’t that sound gross?” She made a face and took another sip of my drink. “These gourmet lids make you feel like breast-feeding again, don’t they?” She made a suckling gesture. I ordered something, and we made our way out onto the street again.

“You don’t know of anybody who wants a freeloading roommate,” she asked, “do you? I was staying with a cousin of mine in Queens for a while, but things kind of fell through there. Besides, it was Queens.

That was after housesitting for that guy.”

“How’d everything work out with that?”

“He wasn’t too happy. It’s harder to find a plant-double than you might think. I ended up getting him a gift certificate instead and a card apologizing.”

“Where from?”

“Kmart. The card and the gift certificate. I didn’t really know what he was into—he was kind of older. Now I’m staying at a hostel around here. It’s a total cash drain, you know? A twenty-seven-dollar-a-day-sized hole. So I’m looking for another place to crash till I can find a job or something. Come with me to my room for a minute?” It didn’t seem to be a question. “I have something to drop off, and then we can hit the park.”

“OK,” I said. There was a kind of abandonment in this utterance, with its two little syllables. O-kay. My kidneys throbbed. I tried not to think of my girlfriend.

We walked west along 57th Street. What was happening here? I had somehow tripped through a hidden back door in the maze of my day, and with every step was traveling inexorably away from that life and toward some dangerous, uncharted territory. It was incredible. My only fear was that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back.

“Jenny!” I called. She had just walked into a roar of oncoming traffic.
She gave me, stepping back onto the curb, a kind of reappraising frown. “I’m pretty sure I never told you my name.”

“That was my—my girlfriend’s name is Jennifer.”

“Oh, wow. I’m Ginny. Ginger. That’s a smart policy, though—only cheat on people with the same name. Ha! Did I just make that up? It protects you against any give-away slips of the tongue.”

I was thinking that this girl might possibly be insane—bipolar or something—or into drugs or some darker thing. I was also thinking about evolution for some reason, how some guy a while ago had debunked the notion of natural selection as a gentle slope toward refinement in favor of this earthquake model—static eons punctuated by violent, singular shifts. I didn’t know if the theory had gone on to be supplanted by yet a third one, but I sensed in the air this afternoon a certain geologic trembling. “I’ve never cheated,” I said “on anyone.”

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Darius,” I fumbled; giving away my real name seemed unwise. My neighbor’s was the only one I could think of, though it came out more like Dare Eros.

“Sounds like the name of a band. Do you play? I think musicians are too hot!”

I wondered what she had to drop off at her place: her hands swung at her sides, empty.

“Look at that lady,” she said. “Did someone stub a cigar out on her face? Oh, wait, them too.” A pair of men in suits passed with identical smudges on their foreheads.

“There’s nothing like Ash Wednesday,” I said, “to make you feel like you’re among the Pod People.”

“The who? Hey, don’t you have to go back to work?”

I thought about this for a moment and said, quite to my own amazement, “I may have just quit.”

We kept to the sunlit stretches of sidewalk. From my periphery I noticed that every now and then Ginny would squint up at the sun, then over at me, and smile. We stopped into a public atrium and strolled among the tourists. There was a megalithic sculpture of a typewriter eraser—the pink wheel big as a jumbo jet’s, the brush bristles thick as PVC pipe. “We’d have to be the size of ants!” she exclaimed. Even though I’d come to work in this part of the city for the better part of a decade I let myself be led on this tour as if I’d never seen any of it before.

At a certain point, we found ourselves by a little roundabout at the southeastern edge of the park. Pigeons swarmed and fluttered around us, ferociously cooing. It stunk of horse manure. The facades of The Plaza, The Ritz-Carlton and The St. Pierre stood massively across the avenue, and under their awnings uniformed men wheeled luggage carts around and chirped for taxis. “You ever stay at one of those places?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Whenever I’m in town on business.”

Ginny sat down on a bench and tended to a shoe that had come wildly untied. A surge of wind blew across Central Park South, sending the pigeons aloft and all the hotels’ flags, the entire row of them, flapping like laundry on a line. When Ginny got up, the bottom half of her dress was wet. She didn’t seem to notice and I didn’t say anything.

She said, “You want to see the best view? Better than any loser’s going to find in his tour book?”

“Of the park?”

“I’ll show you.”

She guided me into Bergdorf’s. It was smaller than a typical department store, more intimate, and achieved a kind of art gallery hush. The displays seemed sparse, arbitrary. We browsed like newlyweds shopping for love-baubles to bestow upon one another. Moving among the wealthy Koreans, we pointed out things we liked and didn’t like, silently, picking up an item and running our hands over it: a purse, a sweater, a shoe. Ginny’s coat with its cavernous pockets must have sent up all kinds of red flags because I noticed we were being tailed by security.

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