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It was 1989, and I rode the subway toward Brooklyn where I’d been invited to a small 4th of July party thrown by a woman who confounded me entirely, a woman born to confound me and no doubt others, an intense, indomitable Australian whose hair fell below her shoulders in a thick auburn wave and whose sonorous, boundless laugh would stop all conversation in a restaurant, trumping anything anyone else might have to say. You simply had to bow and let it pass, then somehow try to pick up where you left off. When she spoke her voice resonated in layers of textures and vibrations. She shaped every syllable of every word, tapped every consonant, rolled each vowel on her tongue like a small boat on a large sea. Then her laugh would follow, open throated, unstoppable.
It’s not that there weren’t other reasons to be attracted to her. But that voice, you know, it grabbed you by the arm and took you with it whether you wanted to go or not. At work, for instance, in the office where we both typed like monkeys on computers, even when I knew better than to angle for any form of carnal interchange, I’d hear that voice declaring itself from the next room as she, with waning patience, explained to a consultant in no uncertain terms as to why his particular request was neither in his best interests nor hers, and somewhere near the end of her speech actually daring to laugh. Not “at him,” mind you, but laughter nevertheless, and her laughter. Which would finish him, some young guy from Wharton or Stanford or Harvard Business School. You wanted to cheer for her. You wanted to know who she was, who she could possibly be. But you already knew. It was all in her voice. In truth you simply wanted—though you knew nothing good would come of it—to put your mouth to hers and drink it in.
Her name was Leah Malone, and if that sounds like a name I’ve made up it’s because, to protect her privacy, it is, though her true name was every bit as unlikely and colorful and 40’s Hollywood. By the night of her 4th of July party we’d known each other and worked together for over two years. We’d circled one another, even made an excuse the year before to have dinner at a sushi restaurant, just a speculative dinner where I know I talked too much and too excitedly about an obsession of the moment having nothing to do with her, and it still bothers me I did that, as if I’d been less voluble that evening we would’ve ended up together. And that would’ve been a good thing. Because the truth is we were not meant to end up together. She needed a different kind of guy, an Italian kind of guy who rode a motorcycle and sweated testosterone and danger, who would enjoy fighting with her and they’d have these big scenes and break up horribly, dramatically before the first year was out, and neither would recover.
The thing is though, I loved being in her presence even if I ended up bewildered and muttering to myself after each encounter. Still, I knew if we were around each other too long we’d fight. I felt it in the differences in our natures, in her physicality and how mine responded to it. She was maybe four inches shorter than me, muscular, and I foresaw us in one raging argument after the next over stupid stuff, over anything, and I knew she’d hit me with that laugh. I could see her hitting me with even more, such as a left hook to the kidneys because her anger was righteous. And if she did…would I hit her back? That is, if I could catch my breath? I hope not. I hope instead I’d just drag her down to the floor, which is where I really wanted her after all, where everybody wanted her and her voice, her physicality. But you never know what’s going to happen in such moments of rage and stupidity, and by my way of thinking, they’re best avoided. So you enjoy what you otherwise can, which in her case was quite a lot. And truly she was generous with what she offered. It wasn’t in her nature to hold back. Regardless, she needed someone less cautious than I was, than I am. That Italian guy I mentioned, for instance.
A year earlier she’d invited me to an afternoon party at the house she rented in Brooklyn, and I’d picked up a six-pack of beer—it was Molson’s, I think—in a bodega on 44th Street near Port Authority. Anyway, it was only noon on that Saturday but I was already running late, needing to switch several trains to reach her. I was walking down 8th Avenue, my six-pack swinging forward and back like a pendulum as I hurried, not paying enough attention to those around me, the sidewalk-sleepers and all-night drinkers and the homeless and the druggies and the scattered tourists, and as I began to pass a slow moving black couple dressed pretty lively for so early in the day (the woman was in a purple dress, and the man wore a brown derby), the woman’s hand swung back just as mine with that six-pack was swinging forward, and they hit. I mean, she must’ve been wearing metal because it rang out like a church bell. She grabbed her hand, turned to me, and yelled pointedly, “Owwww!” Well, she was tall. And had big hands. And maybe she wasn’t a transvestite, but she definitely was a prostitute. And now an angry one. And the guy next to her was her pimp.
How did I know he was her pimp? Trust me, in the late 80’s nobody was hiding anything. He was a little guy even with his brown derby perched on his head, but little guys can be the most dangerous of all. I know it’s a stereotype, but they’ve usually got something to prove. Anyway, he and his gal-pal or business associate or what-have-you were watching me with a focused interest toward my next move as I widened my arc around them. And I heard these words leave my mouth: “Your hand hit my six-pack.” And though technically this was true, it wasn’t the most politic thing to say at that moment. What I’d meant to communicate was that it was an accident; I wasn’t to blame. I tried to correct myself. “It was an accident,” I said looking back as they continued to stare at me. Oh they were a team, they were good, the pimp standing with his arms crossed and the prostitute with her hands placed on her bony hips and a single eyebrow raised, as if neither could believe my degree of lameness. And though for the moment I’d gotten myself out of striking distance, it dawned on me they might see me on the street again, and it could be dark, and truthfully, she had sustained an injury and I hadn’t. So I turned around, walking backwards to face them, and told her, “But I apologize.”
Why did it take me so long? I think I was considering other things (Leah’s voice and the six-pack of Molson’s and the fact I was late) and had dropped my guard, my radar, which was something you never wanted to do back then in New York, especially around Times Square. By the time I opened my eyes I’d found myself in a “situation” with a six-foot prostitute and her five-foot pimp sporting a brown derby. So, quite late in the game, I finally found my manners. Manners, by the way, aren’t just about being nice; they’re also about saving your skin.
Anyway—and I’ll never forget this—the woman raised her hand slowly, opening it as if to catch a softly tossed ball. Then with a sovereign tilt to her head she drew out the word, “Apology…” holding me in suspense momentarily, before her body dipped and relented with something approximating a curtsey, something left over from more civil times, and finished her sentence with “…accepted.” Thus the queen—and she was a queen at that moment—deigned to forgive my slight. I scurried away chastened and disappeared down the concrete steps to the subway where I caught an A-train headed south.
What does this have to do with Leah? Besides having something to do with New York City, which had claimed her, me, and the prostitute? Besides having something to do with an above-average summer day in that world when I was going to see an exceptional, if aggravating, woman? It has to do with two very different women who, in their different ways, I would describe as regal. And it has to do with my bringing something besides beer to Leah’s party. A tale to make her laugh. I bring tales to social affairs like your auntie might bring a casserole. But when I finally arrived in Brooklyn and stepped into Leah’s house she hadn’t the time to hear even the short version of my story before being swept away into her backyard toward higher-action guests who no doubt needed tending, other New Yorkers, others from other countries. So fine, I thought. So oh well.
Leah had a girlfriend roaming the backyard whose father owned an Australian winery, and she’d brought with her several cases of a rather rich and quite tasty chardonnay along with some shiraz blends. We were drinking, in other words, and at some point I heard Leah’s extraordinary laugh erupt from inside her house punctuated by a high-pitched scream, then a laugh, then a scream. I’d never heard such sounds from her. As everyone stared at the back door, a friend from work named John, a painter who was one of the kindest, if quirky men you’d ever meet, stepped out of her house onto the concrete steps holding two large, clear, plastic bags filled with eel segments. As in, sushi eel. Unagi. For his contribution to the party he’d stopped off in Chinatown and bought some live eels, and the fishmonger or eelmonger or what-have-you had prepared them for grilling. Which meant cutting them up. But if you know anything about snakes you can see what’s coming. Those eel segments had not even begun to give up the ghost, were squirming like they’d crawled out of a zombie movie, were the undead, the reanimated, could neither be killed nor live.
Leah continued to alternately laugh and scream inside the house, her footsteps thumping like a kid’s as she ran across her hard-wood floor, then stopped, then screamed, then laughed, then ran… John remained frozen on the back steps, his concern and gentleness more than a little juxtaposed to the writhing carnage in either hand, until finally Leah’s brother, Max, who was visiting from Australia, took pity on him and removed the plastic bags full of zombie eel parts from John and promptly began cooking them. Well, as much as I like eel sushi I couldn’t manage to eat any of those segments even once properly grilled and motionless, though I did enjoy a basic, well-done burger.
We all drank quite a bit, and I remember everybody was dancing in the grass, and The Gipsy Kings were playing through the speakers, and rain was headed our way. But when the clouds opened up no one went inside, just kept dancing, got filthy and wet. And Leah was there with a stack of fresh towels inside the door.
Even with the charming gift I’d brought falling flat, a tale of Times Square left uneaten at the party like auntie’s green-bean pie, even with the summer cold I caught on the air-conditioned train going home, even with the frustration of knowing I’d never attain any sense of peace or completion regarding this woman—she was simply going to drive me crazy and that was the price of admission—it beat the slow decay, the fungus creep, the dry rot, the empty days of another life in another place so clearly there was no point in comparing. Though the city does wear you down, and almost everyone I knew at that time has left, including her, including me.
Anyway, that’s who she was, Leah, always dancing out of grasp toward a more Italian sort of guy, or a brash girlfriend, or a throng of revelers, or just the grass and the rain.
I ran into her in a quiet bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn ten years later. I didn’t even know she was back in New York, and she looked a little older, as did I, but she was the same Leah with the same voice, and she had the same effect on me. She’d come in from the beach with a gal-pal, and I was there to meet a woman. When Leah heard that, she gave me a characteristic smirk and asked if I’d just shaved. “Yes,” I said. Then she went to the bar. When my friend came in—and she was only a “friend,” someone I knew from grad school, though I didn’t explain that to Leah—I was quite pleased to introduce the two. I know it was petty of me, but I couldn’t help it. Though she was ten years younger than Leah or me, she looked quite a bit younger still, especially in that forgiving light, and was quite beautiful, but so was Leah. Once my friend and I took a table, she leaned toward me with a degree of anxiousness and whispered, “That woman has the most intense sexual energy of anyone I’ve ever met.”
“It’s just Leah,” I told her. The next time I looked toward the bar Leah had left without saying goodbye, and that was the last time I ever saw her. I think she was not going to be trumped by anyone. But didn’t she know that should’ve been her last worry? My girl was frightened by her. I got up to scan the rest of the bar for any sign of her, then went into the bathroom. When I looked at myself in the mirror I spotted a small dark scab at the top of my left ear from dried blood where, as Leah had noticed, I’d cut myself shaving, a cut that announced to the world (and my young-looking friend) that I “touched up” my ears. And Leah, with her smirk, had let that stand to greet whatever woman I was meeting. If there’d been toilet paper stuck to my shoe she wouldn’t have told me about that either, just asked if I’d been to the bathroom.
I heard Leah bolted the country shortly after and married…yes, truly, some Italian guy. A whirlwind romance and spontaneous wedding. But she’d been subleasing a New York apartment from a mutual friend and left her high-and-dry mid-lease. Which was out of character. Then I heard the marriage crashed and burned before the year was out. I “heard,” I mean. I could’ve heard wrong, and hope I did. But Leah was unconquerable. And doesn’t one have to allow oneself to be conquered to some degree, male or female, for a marriage to work?
So here’s another tale, the one I’d meant to tell from the beginning about that 4th of July, 1989, when she’d invited me to drop by. It was a last-minute affair and the only ones present were Leah, one of her crazy Australian girlfriends named Maddy, John of the zombie eel-segment story, and his wife Margie from North Carolina. Well, even though there were only five of us I still couldn’t keep up with Leah. She was dashing up to the roof and back down into her apartment and opening beer bottles and laughing loudly with her Aussie friend. I took the stairs to the roof and walked across to the safety wall at its edge. Down below Latino children were throwing firecrackers at each other, holding bottlerockets in their hands while they lit them, really dangerous stuff. I could hear my dad’s voice in my head saying “somebody’s going to get hurt.” I’m from Texas. We’re familiar with guns and fireworks, and all but the most asinine of us are aware of their dangers and how each should be handled. Everyone’s got the idiot cousin from the trailer park who lost his ring finger to a cherry bomb with a short fuse. John and Margie were beside me watching the kids when I heard that laugh from behind us, and Leah and Maddy came romping over the rooftop carrying paper grocery bags loaded with firecrackers and bottlerockets. I mean, by the pound. And before I could say anything they were lighting strings of firecrackers and throwing them over the side where they exploded above the kids heads, who ducked, then looked up and grinned.
“Hey you guys, that’s dangerous,” I said, which of course, though true, was not the most daring line ever uttered. Ignoring me completely, Leah lit a wad of firecrackers, brought her arm back like a baseball pitcher as she held the hissing fistful by her ear, then launched them off the roof where they exploded no more than a few feet in front of her. She and her friend laughed like the possessed. They had a look in their eyes I’d seen before, usually the first time somebody starts firing a gun at living things. Gunpowder madness, I call it, and it’s hard to reach through it to anything rational. I could also see that Leah and her friend had rarely, if ever, handled fireworks. Americans get into enough trouble with them, but we have some small degree of cultural inoculation to the rush they provide. Add to this Leah and her friend were Australian, and if you’ve known any Australians I don’t have to explain how that factors in.
I tried again. “Hey guys. That’s not the right way to do this. See, you hold one firecracker at a time in front of you like this, and when you light it you fling it away real quick so you don’t get hurt…”
In response, Leah burst out with her laugh, that laugh I loved, which could take as well as give, and brutally. I’d never been on the receiving end of it before. It shredded me, and in a single moment I’d left the role I’d taken far behind—Mr. Sensible, or Dad. And maybe just to prove I could to Leah, and maybe to myself, I crossed a line. A part of me took over that was not going to be shown up on the 4th of July by two brash Australian women who had no idea what they were doing.
It was dark. The kids below had gone indoors. A friend of mine flying over Brooklyn that night into LaGuardia told me later it looked like he was flying over a war zone. Explosions, large and small, were going off all around us. I inserted a bottlerocket into an empty beer bottle and fired it across the street into a parking lot protected by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Inside sat a fleet of yellow school buses, and my missile hit one square on its hood. Before I could load a second shot, John and Margie had already joined in the assault. The bottlerockets sparked when they hit the buses, skittered, exploded. Oh it was good fun. I thought I saw Leah look my way. They were still wrangling with firecrackers, and poorly. Maddy lit a bottlerocket she held in her hand that sprayed away wildly and blew up at her feet.
Cars rolled by on the street below, and I don’t know who fired at them first, but I think it was me, and once it was done they were fair game too. We shot bottlerockets at their windshields, bounced them off their roofs. Following the cue, revelers on the other rooftops did the same. We rained fire down on the street.
I am not proud of this. I am not proud of any of this. But it happened. I’d crossed a line, and it happens quicker, easier than you’d imagine. I was in LA during the Rodney King riots, and if you’ve never seen a city burn under such conditions you do not know what happens once the social contract is dissolved. The rules simply evaporate. Tomorrow will bring what it brings, but tonight the fire is such a beautiful thing, and no one can stop you. No one can stop it. I particularly remember a pair of bicyclers hunkered down as they peddled single file down the street, a male and a female. I aimed a bottlerocket in front of them, which exploded beyond them, then one behind them, which exploded behind them. What idiots, I thought, riding their bicycles on the night of the 4th of July through a borderline neighborhood in Brooklyn. What were they thinking? I mean, did they just move to New York? So I sent a reality check shooting by in front of their heads so maybe they’d decide to pull it out of their asses before someone killed them in this town for being a dumbass and easy.
Being raised a hunter, I was a good shot. My calculated trajectories remained true and I didn’t pick off either rider. But bottlerockets are hardly predictable in their flight patterns. So on one level not only did they get off lucky, but I did as well. Still, I can only imagine what it would be like to see a bottlerocket sizzling by ten feet in front of you, hearing another blowing up right behind you, and miles to go before you’re safely home.
About this time a firecracker exploded near Leah. I remember glancing over, not quite understanding, when she and her friend suddenly went quiet, walked softly across the roof, and took the stairs to the apartment below. The three of us remaining—we were a unit now—continued to terrorize passing cars and blast away at the yellow buses across the street, as did our brethren atop neighboring buildings, having a jolly old time, the rockets red glare, and all that.
Well, finally the madness died down through the streets. John, Margie, and I looked at each other spent, satisfied. The Americans had shown up the flashy Australians. Our degree of difficulty had been higher, our attempts more successful, and we’d outlasted them. We opened three remaining beers and clicked the bottles together. “Happy 4th of July,” we said.
I’m sure we were making racket on the way downstairs, chattering happily, high from the noise and smell of gunpowder. When we entered Leah’s apartment I noticed it was quiet.
“Leah,” Margie called out.
“Yes,” Leah answered.
We saw her sitting alone at her kitchen table. It was wooden, painted sky blue. She had her thumb immersed in a coffee cup. “Where’s Maddy?” Margie asked.
“She went home.”
“Are you okay?”
“I got burned,” she told us. It clearly killed her to admit it. I told you so, my father’s voice said in my head, quite pleased with itself. I told you somebody was going to get hurt, and now somebody has.
“God,” Margie said. “Do you want us to take you to the emergency room?”
“On the 4th?” she asked incredulous. I followed her thinking, picturing the ER, the victims and garish wounds spilling into the street. “Besides, I’m sure I’ll recover.” She showed us her thumb. It was red and streaked with gunpowder marks. She abruptly plunged it back into the cup. “But the only thing that’ll stop it from hurting is ice water.”
She was lucky the thumb was still attached, I thought. Had I really fired bottlerockets in the direction of bicyclists? And to teach them a lesson? John didn’t pick up on my vibe. He was excited. He wanted me to accompany him and his wife into the city, and maybe we could find a crowd, maybe we could find a bar. But Margie, satisfied that Leah was okay, and possibly more vulnerable than usual, was arranging for Leah and me to be alone together. Every now and then someone tried this. As if she and I hadn’t noticed each other before, considered such possibilities, circled one another only to have the answer come up as “no.”
Committed to her scenario, Margie was saying her goodbyes and leading John out the door. There was nothing to be done but for Leah and me to kill a few minutes before I left. Still, the pace of my heart quickened for a moment as Leah closed the front door and I found myself alone with her. As if she hadn’t injured and humiliated herself and was in any way up for romance. As if we didn’t already know where we stood. But there’s that idiot part of me, of men in general, popping up hopeful like a dog at just the scent of food when the right woman is concerned. Or the wrong woman.
I gave the feeling a moment to pass. She sat down at her table. “Don’t touch ice to the injury,” I told her. “It’ll make the burn worse.”
“Do you want a glass of water or something?”
“Stay put. I’ll get it.”
I poured myself a glass from the tap, then sat down beside her and sipped at my water. We’d given Margie and John enough time to catch a subway. I could leave. But for the first time since I’d known her, I had the upper hand. I’d been right all along. Her excess had resulted in an injury. Not only that, I’d gone beyond her—jumped higher, farther, and landed solidly on my feet. I’d always wanted to best her, and now that I finally had I regretted it.
We had little to say. I reached across and touched my fingers to her injured hand. She allowed the contact without responding. Soon I got to my feet and told her goodnight. I said I’d let myself out. At the door I looked back, saw her sitting at the table gorgeous in her defeat, refusing to be bowed, staring at her thumb in the cup while grim anger played across her face. Soon she would leave for parts unknown.
As I walked down the street afterward toward the subway I couldn’t help but scan the rooftops for any fireworks headed my way. With each step I felt increasingly lucky my behavior that night hadn’t altered my life or anyone else’s. But I had a sense of having done something wrong, of violating some order. Nevertheless I got home safely. Soon I moved to Los Angeles, to Austin, then back to New York where I lived for over a decade before the money dried up.
But I can’t stop thinking of that time, of New York, of Leah. And I wonder where she is now, and if she is okay. We can all come to a bad end. Especially those so certain of their value they either refuse to or are unable to bend, to surrender, to be conquered. In other words, the royalty among us. They never quite believe they can fall. But they can fall the farthest. Then there they are, shocked at their defeat. The strongest of them somehow managing to find grace. Perhaps, even under the most difficult of circumstances, able to forgive one who had slighted them. To accept an apology humbly offered this many years later.