It is not so much that winter has arrived as autumn has gone. The trees have turned, the birds have vanished and the holidays have passed assuring that there has been no miscalculation of time. But the moment is awkward. Winter has not arrived. It is as if the season were a traveler who has missed a scheduled bus or plane. No one doubts its arrival, they only question the time. Both the traveler and the party awaiting his arrival are left in limbo and, if anything, look for someone or something on which to place the blame.
It rains. It should be snowing and I am late. It is as much my fault as it is of my transportation. I’m late, again, as usual, and will offer the excuse that the train schedules have changed since I last traveled to the country from the city. Arriving at the station, I grab a friendly cab to take me to my appointed brunch. The day tempts winter and freezes the rain to the road, further delaying my arrival. But the driver and I manage through, sliding occasionally, slipping back and forth from pleasant conversation to gasps of panic and back to pleasantries. He drops me off at the restaurant and continues on his way.
I find her in the back, next to a huge fireplace that rivals the size of some Manhattan apartments. The flames blaze as if it were the dead of winter. She sits facing the window, away from the room, looking out onto a country street and the city tourists who have come for a Sunday in the country air.
“Sorry,” I say standing behind her. “The road was slick, and….I was late in getting off.” She turns and smiles and tilts her head, acting more a teenager than a woman in her early thirties. There is no sign that she’s upset, perhaps simply resigned to the idea that I rarely arrive when due. In fact, there is little sign of anything at all expect three cigarette butts in an ashtray, her Bloody Mary emptied except for the pink ice and a lonely stalk of celery.
“Been waiting long?”
She tilts her head, “Ten minutes?”
I take the seat across from her. For the briefest moment we are silent, staring, smiling.
“So, he didn’t stand you up.” It takes the waiter to break the moment. I shoot him a nasty glance and he shrugs an apology, perhaps with a wink. Rather than give him an unnecessary explanation, I order two Bloody Marys. He hands me a menu.
Before I can speak she asks my question, “So how are you?” Sometimes I suspect I speak too freely, too fast and foolishly. I want to tell her everything that has happened to me no matter how petty or insignificant. I want to tell her where I eat, who I see, what I do each hour, and what I don’t do. The world is doing me well right now. I want her to know that at this moment I feel as though I control it. But I don’t know where to begin.
“Really?” She is unconvinced. We’ve talked too often and for too long. Our conversations usually begin over a problem, hers or mine. I’m a bit embarrassed that there’s not some searing tragedy-in-the-making that requires her counsel.
“Actually,” I say, “I’m great. New York is a dream. It’s not real. Not yet.” I can feel myself lifting up as I speak, and I’m afraid I may actually stand and waltz about the room. “I’m having more fun, doing more, working more, and enjoying everything. I can’t believe I didn’t do this earlier.
“I’ve got a huge expense account. I eat in fine restaurants. And next month, they’re sending me to Paris for four days. Paris!”
I feel a smirk coming. “All the fine restaurants?” she says with a knowing smile.
I smile back, “Every single one. Hey, I’m enjoying this life. I like dressing in expensive suits, eating in expensive restaurants and tipping moderately well. I can go to the theater or a club – or both. I can spend weekends in the mountains or at the beach. If I see something I want, I can buy it. If I see a woman I like…”
“You can buy it.”
“I ask her out. And she goes!”
Her smile tightens and her eyes move past mine and look out the window behind me. I think I’ve said too much.
She doesn’t expect the question, but it brings her back to the table. Slowly, she begins to tell me the troubles or raising her daughter now that she’s alone. The eight-year-old girl doesn’t understand her father’s infrequent visits and why it is longer between each time she sees him. Jenny doesn’t know that it was her mother’s idea to leave, but neither Mom nor Dad has offered to tell her the specifics of the change. Now, it’s as if he’s abandoned any responsibility toward the girl. Just as her mother abandoned him.
“But Jenny has become my salvation,” she says to me and her eyes come back to life. It is her time to be buoyed by enthusiasm. “Two weeks ago, I took her to the opera. She could have cared less about the music, but was possessed by the costumes and the sets.”
In time, she tells me of her new job, how she has less and less time with her daughter, but how much more she is enjoying those times.
We talk about our lives. We talk of our dreams. I think we talk of just about everything on our minds.
Labor Day weekend is cooler than most I remember. It may be the city, or the job, or a man’s fading dream of summer. It may just be fading dreams.
I can’t recall being alone on Labor Day. There were always family gatherings, beach parties or romantic picnics in the park.
This year it feels better to be alone. I figure it will be good practice. What better than a beer, a few hamburgers and a Sunday afternoon on the apartment roof. I settle in.
The sun is warm enough and the beer is strong enough that I’m soon dozing in a longue chair recently retrieved from a nearby sidewalk. It is only the sound of the traffic and the playground across the street that keeps me from falling into a deep sleep. I think I hear my name, but decide to ignore it. I learned a long time ago that more times than not, when someone called my name, it usually wasn’t me they were calling.
When the shout includes “Hey, are you up there?” I decide to investigate. Fortunately, the roof allows a clear view of the front stoop if one leans over, just shy of falling off. Unfortunately, the beer and sun makes me nearly do that. Below, I see two faces staring up with panicked expressions as they assume I am about to plummet down on them.
“We didn’t think you were home,” she shouts up to me. “Jenny made me wait. She said you were probably up on the roof.” I greet them at the apartment door with an empty trash bag in my hand. They made it up the stairs faster than I could gather the trash and beer bottles decorating the place.
She’s radiant. Her age refuses to show.
“Hello?” She tilts her head and smiles. Then her expression changes to embarrassment. “We came at a bad time, didn’t we? We should have called.”
“No! No, not at all.” I’m lost in looking at her. Conversation is not coming easy. Nor are manners. “Come in.” As I turn I see the mess I hadn’t cleaned up. No!
“Let’s go up to the roof. It’s too nice a day.” On the roof, I’m the only mess to deal with.
I grab two beers and a soda for Jenny despite her request for something stronger and her mother’s negative reaction. We head up the dingy stairway to the patch of sunlight squeezing between the concrete around us. I do my best to dust off two beaten plastic chairs and set them next to my rescued lounge. Jenny doesn’t sit, but wanders to a corner of the roof, leaning over the edge of the building and staring into the city while we sit and talk. She is now as tall as her mother and most certainly a mirror of the woman I know, twenty-some years younger.
“She’s sixteen,” she says.
“About half my age,” I say, making an inconvienent attempt at a joke. “She’s beautiful. She’s grown since I last saw her, what some 3 or 4 years ago.”
“Six. Six years.”
We are running the risk of sinking into small talk. I try to think of what I really want to say.
“What the hell are you doing here?!”
She’s older, certainly. But she isn’t her age, and looks much as I remember her from what I know are too many missing years. Our weekend brunches became more infrequent from year to year until our meetings were replaced by occasional phone calls then little more than notes in Christmas cards. The day’s light breeze catches her auburn hair and brushes it into her face. She pushes it back, making the gesture part of something she is saying, but I don’t hear it. Only once does the sun betray the slightest touches of silver that are creeping in. The sun is hitting her square in the face and she squints, exposing the thinnest of lines around her eyes. When she smiles, perfectly straight lines are drawn from corners of her mouth toward her chin.
“We decided to spend a girls’ weekend in New York,” she explains. “See some people, shop, see a show. Jenny asked about you. She thinks she wants to be an actress or a model…”
“She’s pretty enough.”
“Thank you. I thought it was time she saw some of the mean streets of the city, see if this is what she really wants. Her father is here. He says he’ll help her.”
Her eyes return to me and her look turns from one of loving concern to concern.
“How are you?”
“Alright,” I lie.
“You’ve lost weight.”
I smile. “Stress.”
“How’s your work?” she asks. But she somehow knows.
“I’ll find something.”
For the briefest moment, we are silent.
“I haven’t seen her in over a month.”
I won’t look at her. She stands and walks behind me. I jerk away as she touches my head.
“I’m OK,” I protest. “I am!”
I reach to push her hand away and feel a ring on her finger.
“Been shopping, I see.”
She laughs. She tells me she married last fall. She’s happy and I’m glad. But Jenny has not taken to her step-father. That’s part of the reason for the trip to New York – girl-time. And Jenny wanted to see her father who has been trying to come back into her life.
Our talk turns to reminiscing. We talk about old times, good times, even if time has painted prettier, simpler versions of those times. We remember only the good times.
Jenny looks restless.
“We should go,” she suggests.
I walk them down to the street.
“It’s been too long,” I say and she agrees. Jenny is by the curb kicking at some trash, a contradiction of innocent child and beautiful woman.
She looks at me, concerned.
“I’ll be OK.”
She reaches up and cups my cheek, like a mother does a child. She stares at me most deeply, and then leans in kissing me goodbye on the cheek. I decline an invitation to dinner, inventing a previous commitment that doesn’t exist.
” That’s a shame. It’s a birthday dinner,” she smiles. They walk toward the corner.
Who’s birthday?” I call out. “Jenny’s? Your’s!”
She looks back over her shoulder with a smile.
“How old are you?”
“Younger than I look, older than I feel,” she smiles.
They vanish around the corner.
The summer when I was 10 or 11 years old, I fell in love. I bought a plastic ring on the boardwalk that looked like a cigar band and gave it to my heart’s desire. It was a bold gesture for someone my age, even bolder because she said she had a boyfriend back home. But I knew the girl always stayed with the guy who gave her a ring. I was playing for keeps.
She said it was cute and she was delighted to have a new boyfriend like me, but we had to keep it secret so her ‘other’ boyfriend wouldn’t find out. She didn’t understand that I expected her to give him up. I let her keep the ring, hoping it would help her change her mind.
Later that day, I saw her with some other girls. She had something in her hand and they were all laughing. When they saw me, she snapped her hand closed and they stopped laughing. They had to be laughing about me.
I resolved never to fall in love with an older woman again. After all, she was fourteen.
I’m not much of a stage door Johnny. I hate meeting celebrities because I’m always at a loss for words. It doesn’t make any sense, I know. They are people just like me. But they are somehow different.
Then again, tonight is different. This isn’t a star. This is a friend. Still, I don’t have the nerve to go inside. I’ll wait with the small crowd on the street.
I don’t like standing here amidst fans and paparazzi. I’m uncomfortable and feeling foolish. I decide I’ll pretend I am waiting for a bus. I’m waiting for a friend who is overdue.
The city smells of the beginning of spring while the last of winter holds on. What little snow remains is dirty and hard. The last few days have melted most of the winter away until only small patches remain as spring approaches.
I don’t see the door open, only the flash of cameras and the scurry of fans. All around people are calling “Jennifer. Jennifer”.
“Jenny!” I call out as others look at me.
The crowd, which has grown larger, pushes me away.
“Jenny!” I shout. “Over here!”
She turns to me, smiles, but I don’t think she sees me. More cameras flash. In another burst of light, she is running to me, throwing her arms around me.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I saw the show,” I say casually.
She hugs me tight as more cameras click and flash. “Put your arms around me,” she whispers. “They’ll think we’re lovers.”
I hear a voice ask “Who is that?” There is no answer.
She pulls me through the crowd and down the street to an unmarked doorway. “You have time to buy me a drink, don’t you?” she asks. “You do owe me a beer.”
We walk up the back stairs of the club and are given a table in the corner next to a silent fireplace. Outside the window, tourists and theater-goers wander by. She tells me I am looking more handsome than ever since my hair turned grey. I tell her she is more beautiful since her hair went blonde. She tilts her head and smiles.
I don’t ask, but she tells me she is worried for her mother.
“She’s not sick or anything, she’s just not doing well,” she explains. “She’s all alone. I asked her to come stay with me for a while, but she doesn’t want to come to the city. I don’t know. I think she’s just not happy anymore.” Her eyes fill. I think mine do too.
“Quiet,” I say, handing her a napkin. “Take your time.”
For a moment, we are silent.
Her hand moves, almost unseen, to brush her hair from her eyes or perhaps to catch a tear. I’m looking at her, but I don’t see her. I see a wrinkle in the corner of her young eyes. A shadow crosses the corner of her mouth and runs straight down toward her chin. She forces a smile. She reaches and touches my hand and I feel her fingers entwine with mine. She speaks.
“Were you and Mom lovers?”
My smile is tight-lipped, “No.”
“That’s a shame.”
The sand is fine, tiny specks. You can’t grasp it or hold it. It slips through your fingers no matter how much you want to keep it. When the wind blows, it stings your skin.
I’ve fallen across a castle, or more precisely a former sand castle ravaged by the high tide. She continues to run across the beach and is maybe twenty yards away before she turns and sees that I am down.
She taunts me. “Get up. Hurry up or you’ll never catch me!” She waves my hat above her head, the object that started this chase.
I reach for something to pull myself up, but find nothing but sand. It’s in my mouth. She continues to call to me, running backwards, goading me until she sees I’m up and continuing the race. She turns and runs faster away.
After a burst of speed that surprises me, I catch her, tackle her and we fall into the sand at the edge of the water. We are laughing, covered in sand sticking to our wet and warm bodies. A couple walks by, looking down on us with a smile or distain. I’m not sure. I don’t care.
She wipes the sand off my lips with her finger. Then leans down and kisses me.
“I think we should have an affair,” she says.
“As soon as I catch my breath,” I say.
“I don’t think I can wait that long.” She laughs as she starts to get to her feet. But I pull her back to the sand and surf and we kiss. And kiss again.
That is the extent of our affair.
“When do you go back,” she asks.
“I’ve got time. There are trains every hour, so there’s no rush,” I say. “But I don’t want to get back to late. I have a full day tomorrow.”
“The finest,” I reply. “It’s part of the job.”
She laughs. I feel good when I make her laugh.
The waiter clears our dishes and I order two more Bloody Marys despite her meager objection. We have so much more to talk about and we’ve said so much already. I invite her to visit me in New York. “Bring Jenny,” I insist.
She says she’ll come as soon as her life settles down a bit. Maybe she’ll bring Jenny. Maybe she’ll come alone.
“But you will visit?”
“Definitely”, she says.
“Don’t be childish,” she says tilting her head.
I take her hand and we are silent, smiling. Neither seems sure of what to say. When start to speak, she sits up in her chair, looking past me out the window.
“Look,” she says. “It’s snowing! When did that start?”
The streets and sidewalks outside the restaurant are covered with the thinnest veil of white, an opaque glaze that makes the little country village sparkle in the combination of snowfall and twilight. It is a glimpse of a magic moment that one has but an instant to capture. One tries hard to memorize the sight and the feeling it evokes, because you know as it passes it will never be like this again. In another minute the sun will be gone, the snow may stop falling. The moment will be gone.
All I can think to say is “sometimes, I wish I could talk to you forever.”
We sit in silence and the waiter brings the check.