“Jin’s market’s still on the corner,” she said, an effort to break through thirty years of ice, nothing more. They’d been sitting across from each other, Stephen and Jane, five minutes, six, maybe, staring through windows, shifting in their seats, polishing water-stained silverware. Thirty years was too long to pretend to be friends, but when he called, said he was in town, sentimentality got the better of her. She knew why he was here. Morbid curiosity sandwiched between an insurance seminar and vague sense of guilt, the kind you carry so long that it’s worn down like a polished stone. “We’ve had the same conversation now for thirty years. I look at his flowers and say, ‘What’s the cost for looking?’ and he says, ‘Cost is cigarette,’ and then we smoke.”
“In the winter, he forces ginger tea on me. And lately, he’s been making this putrid drink ‘to keep health on.’ I take it, but I toss it when I get to work.“
Stephen nodded, turned his head. His hand flew up to catch a waiter’s attention, to order drinks. Stephen, polite as always. The shyness was something he’d grown into. In thirty years, his body had turned into a stretched-out suit hanging on a hanger too small. He ordered his younger self’s drink. Manhattan, rocks, two cherries. Jane graduated to martinis in the space between young and old. Vodka. Olives. Sometimes pearl onions. Sometimes a twist.
“How are you handling things?” he asked.
“I’m not,” she said behind her most dazzling smile. “I’m thinking about setting up a hospice bed here,” she said. “That way I can keep the procession entertained.” She sipped her water. “There’ll be two feeds: morphine and vodka. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll share the morphine.”
“Why did you say no to treatment?” She didn’t like that question. She didn’t want to talk about serious things.
“My tombstone will read, ‘shallow, but happy.’” At the salon, she and Meghan joked that shallow but happy was the only way to walk through life. These days, she hung on to ‘shallow, but happy’ with a white-knuckled grip and swore she’d do so to the bitter end. “I’m still at the salon,” she said. “Don’t know what else to do. Last week, this walk-in was sitting in the velvet chairs when I got in. The new girl’s called out sick, and Meghan’s conned someone into a full head of hi-lites, so I get her. I know I know her from somewhere. And she knows she knows me. But I have one of those plain-Jane faces, so everyone always thinks they know me.”
“You look like a rock star.”
“Ageing rock star, darling.”
“We are the last of a dying breed.”
Jane lifted her glass. “A toast – to dying breeds. To endangered species. To the extinct.” She drank. She folded her cocktail napkin into little squares. “She has a pretty distinct look, this girl. Walnut hair. Perfectly arched eyebrows, pointy chin. Her eyes are almost violet. She’s pretty, even without makeup. I think, for a minute, that she’s an actress. But she’s not.” She leaned her elbow on the table, her chin in her hand. “Remember how it used to be done?” She thrust her hand across the table, under Stephen’s chin. “‘Hi. Kate? Jane. Nice to meet you.’ False smile.” Stephen pulled gently away. He wore khakis, she noted. Sensible loafers. A cheap navy blazer with a stick-pin logo. She skewered an olive. Bar salad, they used to call it, when they supplemented their meals with fruit and lemon rinds from the bartender’s garnish tray.
“So, she’s sitting in my chair and I step between her and the mirror, as one does, to look her in the eyes, to ask her what she wants. I know she wants me to dust the ends. Girls like her never want to lose length. But she says, ‘Cut it off.’
“So then I’m thinking she’s through a breakup because that’s the only time’s girls like her want to cut it all off. And, honestly, I can’t deal with someone crying in my chair, then crying in the mirror, then crying at home, then coming back in a week, crying, and begging me to help her look more like herself. I’m so tired of taking care of strangers. I ask her why she wants to cut it off – as one does –”
“She says, ‘I’m pregnant,’ and the tears well up and she doesn’t seem too happy about it, but you can’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘Send it back.’ She’s wearing a wedding ring and a rock, she’s not showing, she’s so – pretty… So I step behind the chair and run my fingers through her hair, as one does, and I squint and tell her I’ll cut off five inches and if she wants more, she can come back in a week and I’ll cut the rest.”
“Halfway through the haircut, I know where I know her from. And I’m praying she won’t know where she knows me. She doesn’t talk, just mopes in the mirror, her hands folded on her lap, and after the cut, she presses a twenty into my hand and says, ‘You live in the Westmore.’ She lives down the hall from me. 6H.”
“Oh, no,” Stephen said.
“She’s one of those young professionals who’re moving in, paying three thousand a month while the management companies run out all the old timers and interesting people… There’s an endless supply of people willing to pay for stainless-steel appliances and dishwashers. Her mail’s been in my box a couple of times. I brought up a package once that’d been sitting in the lobby a few days. Kate Fornier, or something.
“Three days later, she knocks on my door. Doug’s watching TV, you can hear it through the walls, so I open up and there she is, a look of panic on her face and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not fucking listening to you whine about your hair,’ but she’s got a piece of paper in her hand and it’s shaking and she says, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, you’re the only one I know. Brad’s mother is sick’ – Brad, for god’s sake – ‘could you feed my cat?’”
“They drive a rusty red Saab. We used to joke when they first moved in. We called them The Perfects. I’d come home from work and Doug would say, ‘How are The Perfects today?’ and I’d say, ‘The Perfects had a perfectly lovely day.’ He is perfect. She is perfect. They are perfect.”
“It’s nice to see you,” Stephen said. He slid his hand, palm up, across the table. She placed her hand in his and he squeezed it tight, which took her by surprise. “We should order some food.”
The Perfect’s keys were on a heart-shaped key chain, the heart a mould of junk metal buffed into a matte silver that sat heavy in her hand. Her own heart pounded when she unlocked their door as if she were doing something naughty, dislodging a secret she should know nothing about. As if she’d run into the ghosts she barely remembered. “Me, my glass of Chardonnay, and that printout let ourselves in,” she told Stephen. “I was trying to remember who lived there – before the opera singer –”
“Sheila. Randi used to do her hair.”
“Yes! Remember how the apartment used to be a grimy grey? Now it’s white. Not landlord white. Designer white.”
“Beige white. And everything is so – tasteful. Tasteful green sofa, tasteful oak dining-room table, tasteful cloth placemats. No water marks on the ceiling. No scuff marks on the floor. All signs of life polished away. It should be a crime to be this boring.” Stephen cast his eyes downward, as if his own life, once precious and rare, now sat, shrunken, in his lap. Jane regretted saying that. What did her life consist of but a pothead boyfriend, merlot, television, and days at the salon?
“You should see the kitchen. Looks like it’s never been used, but it’s outfitted with every gadget you can imagine like it belongs on a cooking show. Davy D.’s cooking show.”
Stephen chuckled. “How about little Davy D.”
Davy D. was a club kid, back in the day. They all were, spinning on E and Special K, snorting cocaine in the color closet at Oribe between clients. Davy D., always sticking his hands down someone’s pants, boy or girl, it didn’t matter. Everyone slept with him. Stephen in his tight white jeans and red kicks, Jane with her sparkle makeup and shredded fishnets, and Randi, beautiful Randi, with his shaggy hair and loose smile, whose death left an unsealable scar. It’s funny how some people can do that.
“Now he’s Martha Stewart in drag.”
“It is of concern,” Stephen muttered. He waved the waiter over, ordered another round.
“The Perfects’ cat is perfect, too. A Maine Coon, grey and white, that rubs against my legs. Charles, the printout says. Charles, the cat. I feed Charles per the instructions, with precise measurements in a hand-painted ceramic kitty bowl. And while he’s eating, I look in the fridge.”
“As one does.”
“Asparagus, feta cheese, organic strawberries. An open bottle of Sauvignon…”
“Of course I do. And then, Charles the cat requires me to follow him into the living room, where everything is in place. Sofa, chairs, lamps. Photographs of Mr. Perfect kissing Mrs. Perfect’s cheek, Mrs. Perfect, as a child, by a Christmas tree with parents, young Mr. Perfect on Santa’s lap, Mr. Perfect water skiing, his six pack, his perfect tan, his perfect toothy grin. It’s the warped mirror image of Randi’s place.”
He hadn’t been in Randi’s apartment since just before Randi died. It had felt like a betrayal, how Stephen had retreated back to the Midwest, buried his life in the trappings of suburbia, married, divorced, and came out of the closet when it was safe again. The fragility of his own young mortality was too much to bear, she thought. Then again, Randi left the rent-controlled apartment to her, and all the trash in it. While she was clearing it out she wondered if she’d ever get over dealing with all of it alone.
“Of course, I have to see what they’ve done with the bedroom. Charles jumps on their bed and curls up between two pillows and I’m sitting on the edge of the bed and the apartment door opens. Doug appears in the bedroom doorway and says, ‘I knew I’d find you here,’ and then, ‘They have any good beer in this joint?’
“And he takes a step towards me, and another step, and he has a lit joint in his hand and I tell him to blow the smoke out the window, but he doesn’t, so I say, ‘At least don’t burn a hole in the bed.’”
She didn’t mind that he smoked, though she gave up pot, and everything else, years ago. They all did. Stephen, Meghan, Erin, Miles, even Davy D., when they stopped and saw the blood draining from their world. After that began the long, slow slide into beige. “I don’t know why I did it,” she said, “but I pulled his wrist up and sucked some life out of that joint. And then I let myself fall back onto the bed. The feather tick, the down comforter, that smell of clean laundry.” The breeze from the ceiling fan, the quiet of the back of the building, Doug’s body on top of hers, so heavy that she could barely breathe. “I want to be them.”
They lived in squalid tenements, walk-ups, and squats, superstars in the underground scene. Dancing until five, waking up at eight, rolling down the street still high from the night before. There was no need for food, just coffee. Jane unplugged her refrigerator to lower her electricity bill. She used it as a bookcase.
There were nights – mornings, really – when the three of them, Stephen, Randi, Jane, walked from the Limelight to the bagel factory to buy coffee and warm bagels and then to the water, the pier on 46th with its rotting logs and crumbling asphalt. They’d watch the sun come up over the dirty river. The Mexicans rolled in at six with their fishing rods and transistor radios. Randi, Jane, and Stephen would trudge off to Jane’s place, shower, drink more coffee, slap on enough makeup to hide the night before, and go to work.
Jane wasn’t sure when the end began, just that one day she’d see a neighbor walking his dog, and the next time she saw him, he was a skeleton, cheeks sunken, shoulders stooped, feet shuffling, the dog none the wiser. And then, she’d never see that neighbor again, but she’d watch the same things repeat the following week, the young and vibrant turning old and decrepit while they were sleeping.
They battled to stay shallow but happy, to change nothing, to let nothing change them. Randi, sweet Randi, looked away from the ugly. They all did. She lost count of how many funerals she attended. The weave of her life undone, thread by thread.
Of their threesome, Stephen was the charming one, Randi, sensitive. And what was Jane? She tried to remember. Brash. Calculated. Needy. She walked through life with her hands in little fists and dared anyone to tell her “no.”
“We’re laying in The Perfects’ perfect bed and I can’t sleep. My mind’s spinning about everything. About Meghan and you and Randi. What New York used to be like, how everyone was on the take and no one minded. How they turned our pier into a park. So, I get up and wrap myself in a blanket on the sofa with the cat and chain smoke Doug’s cigarettes, one after the other, and it’s maybe two and I’ve been up for a while and Doug appears in the door frame and says, ‘Put some clothes on, woman. I’ll make you an omelet.’ I tell him I don’t want an omelet and I apologize for smoking all his cigarettes and he shrugs and says no worries. We’ve got another pack at home.
“So I go back into the bedroom and look for my clothes, but it’s dark and I don’t feel like turning on the lights, and I’m so tired, the air is too heavy to move, and she’s got this closet full of perfectly perfect clothes, a red wrap dress, the fabric’s so heavy and feels so good. The skirt moves with me when I turn. And then I go into their bathroom, and in their medicine cabinet I find a bottle of Klonopin, so I take a couple and try her expensive face cream. I look in their shower. Cheap shampoo. They always have cheap shampoo. If she comes in again, I’ll have to talk to her about that.
“And then I’m in the kitchen and Doug’s left the apartment door open so I glance down the hallway to my own – Randi’s – and that door’s open, too, and I think, Stephen, what if we could change everything with a thought, like Meghan’s self-help books say you can? What if we could undo the decisions we made, even just one, do you think we’d end up in the same place? What if Randi hadn’t died? Where would I be living? Where would you be?”
“If he hadn’t died, I would’ve,” Stephen said slowly. She caught a glimpse of the young man he used to me.
“We all die,” she said. “What’s worse, dying young, or living in a stew of beige? I’m tired of beige.”
“I hear you, sister,” Stephen said, his younger self retreating back into the folds of his stretched-out suit.
She meant to leave it at that, but he ordered another round.
“It’s four a.m. and I’m opening windows, refilling The Perfects’ Sauvignon with cheap Chardonnay and water. I make Doug put away the omelet ingredients. I make the bed, I fluff the pillows. Doug’s watching. Laughing at me, as if what I’m doing matters. I tell him I don’t want The Perfects to be upset. He says shaking them up would be a gift. And then he tells me I look beautiful in the red dress. ‘Stay here,’ he says. And I don’t know why, but – I’m standing at the counter and the granite is so smooth and cool and clean, and the sink is so deep, and the food in the refrigerator, and the pictures on the wall … I start crying and I can’t stop. I don’t want him to see, so I’m trying to be quiet about it and I’m putting away the knives and I cut myself, right across my palm. It’s not bad, but it hurts and it’s bleeding. On the counter, on the floor, on the red dress. So then I’m crying and cursing and trying to stop the blood while I’m blotting it off the dress.
“And then he appears. Clean shaven. Hair parted. He’s wearing Mr. Perfect’s button-down shirt and tie, his belly presses against the buttons. The jeans are just a little too tight in the waist, a little too long in the legs. So now I’m laughing and crying and trying to stop up blood and he’s got this look on his face and takes my hand and the paper towel I’m using to hold in the blood, and says, ‘I don’t want to live without you.’
“I pull away because I don’t want to go there and say, ‘shallow, but happy,’ but he pulls me back and holds me tight and I say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ I meant it, too. He leads me to the bedroom and he lays me on the bed and he makes love to me. But it isn’t him. And it isn’t me. And he whispers, ‘I love you,’ which he never says, and then he wraps himself around me and we stay like that for I don’t know how long.
“But, something doesn’t feel right and I’m trying to figure out what it is and then it occurs to me –
“He let the fucking cat out.”
Stephen started shaking, his mouth tight, his shoulders hunched and at first she thought he was choking or coughing, had something stuck in his throat, but the shaking continued, his head bobbing, his hands reaching towards his belly and she saw he was laughing, quick, silent convulsions that rocked his body, made his cheeks tremor. A laugh she’d never seen before. And she realized, for all they had been through, all those many years ago, she couldn’t remember them ever really talking.
“Listen,” she said, “I’ve known since I met him that this man will never move mountains.” She motioned with her hand that she was going out for a smoke.
“What happened to the cat,” Stephen said.
“To be continued,” she said. She left Stephen laughing at the table.
Outside, it was cool. The first hints of winter. Seasons always look her by surprise. She smoked.
Before she moved into the apartment, before the hookers and heroin addicts were pushed out to Eleventh Avenue, the city loved its small secrets. Once the three of them found a rusted bike and a single shoe, a black dress pump, size twelve, in the bramble of Central Park. Along the river, they discovered an empty shanty and spent a week of nights sleeping under the three stars brave enough to break through the city’s eternal light. In the woods uptown, by the railroad tracks, there was a burnt-out pickup truck.
Randi willed her his apartment, signed the lease over to her at the Hospice. His parents were afraid to touch anything of his. Stephen’s anger was too much for the city to bear. Cleaning it out fell to her. She rifled through Randi’s boxes, silently thanked him for the five hundred dollars in tips he hid in an old sock. She donated his clothes, and left his painted mannequin on the street, where it became a monument for a few weeks, collecting flowers, not only for Randi, but for everyone who had died.
Tucked away, in the corner of the hall closet, she found a cardboard box full of yarn. Hanks of twisted color. Knitting needles, too. Scarves. Hats. A half-knit sweater. Randi, on the rare nights when he was alone, knit. His dirty little secret. She pushed the box back onto the shelf and kept it there all these thirty years. The dying are good at keeping secrets, she thought, and the dead are good at giving them away.
She pulled down the box when she’d heard from Stephen, took a scarf, soft chenille, fuchsia and orange, ugly as sin, and folded it into her bag. Maybe she’d give it to him tonight. She wasn’t sure. Randi’s yarn was the last secret the city held, the preservation of which was her grave responsibility.
She stubbed out her cigarette and went back inside.
“What happened to the cat?”
“Oh,” she said. At her place was a fresh martini, skimmed with ice. Stephen had moved on to bourbon, neat. She took her time to sitting, to smooth her hair. She sipped her drink.
He leaned forward on his elbows, drunk, inquisitive, intense, young Stephen.
“Doug’s in the hallway, with his Here kitty, kitty trying to coax the thing to come back in. And I want to scream, the damn cat’s name is Charles, not kitty, and How Could He – but I’m busy cleaning up the plate I broke – I broke a plate – because I’d already screamed ‘You fucking idiot’ and it didn’t seem like enough, so I smashed a plate on the floor. And now I’m cleaning it up and he’s looking for the cat and there’s dried blood on the dress, red on red. I start thinking about Mrs. Perfect, holding back tears in the chair and spinning her ring, pregnant but not happy about it. And how Doug and I watched them get into their car from our living-room window and Doug said, ‘Only assholes drive cars in the city.’ And how Mr. Perfect opened the car door for her but didn’t wait to close it. And how everything about their apartment, their lives, screams happy, but they are not happy. She’s not, anyway. I wonder what’s wrong with his mother and if she likes Mrs. Perfect, or maybe Mrs. Perfect isn’t perfect enough for her. And how did they meet? And what do they do? And why is everything in the house so nice except for their shampoo?
“I’m on the floor sweeping up the dish with a paper towel because I can’t find a broom and I realize I simply don’t understand anything anymore.
“And then, I hear him before I see him – standing in the doorway – the cat gouging its claws into his shoulder. Doug’s smiling, triumphant. I start to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Doug closes the door and lets the cat down and sits next to me on the floor and he starts laughing, too.”
Later, when they were parting company, and she knew she’d never see him again, she asked if he thought Randi beat death, it having come on so quickly, with such a blind broad stroke. He said he’d never thought about it before.
“It sure beats waiting at the train station for the right train to come,” she said. She gave him the scarf, wrapped it around his neck. “This is for you.”
“It’s hideous,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Beautifully hideous. Where did you get it?”
She shrugged, cupped the flame of her lighter. Cigarette clenched between her teeth she said, “A friend made it.”