That morning I spotted her as I was walking to get a haircut at the barber down the street from my apartment. It was late morning and the sunlight had risen above the roofs of the buildings, the street was bare of shadows and we saw each other at the same time. Mary had cut her hair, her dark brown eyes quickly surveying the sidewalk between us; she was silently negotiating the landscape. I could almost see myself reflected in her pupils. Her jet black eye brows were nearly perfectly drawn on her forehead, nothing seemed out of place, and her hips followed her stare.
"Hey you." She liked to say that, it was something distinctive to her. The dark brown hair was cut off her shoulders and I could tell she had it styled, it bounced and the curves made it seem like it was moving when it wasn't. She wasn't dressed in something I'd call high fashion but she had on a pair of jeans that fit her perfectly and I could see that necklace I bought her a dozen years ago still hanging from her neck. It was a small silver miniature film canister, the kind you'd put in a camera. The jeans she'd chosen to wear were perfect. It's not often that you see a woman wearing a pair of jeans, who just, well, she knows how to wear them. Her stomach is still flat, her hips perfectly curved to carrying the fabric of the jeans and a man's belt woven through the loops with its buckle centered beneath where her belly button would be if she'd had her shirt off. Her short round nose still looked carved and her high cheekbones made her mouth and lips seem refreshingly full but taught at the same time. Her smile was all big teeth, perfectly aligned except a front tooth which was slightly off color, a hazy grey, from where she knocked it out as a kid falling off her bike and then having it caped years later. Her hands; these were the masterpieces, lean and muscular, long fingers, beautiful lines of veins running down her arms and across her wrist, each laid above her fingers and knuckles. She hugged me slightly, one arm over my shoulder the other around my waist. Then I smelled it, Lancôme Treasure, God I love that perfume, it's perfect.
"So what are you doing over here?" She stepped back from me to look me up and down.
"Going to get a hair cut." I pointed across Fifth Avenue to a barber on the corner, she looked in that direction and then back to me, her hair bouncing in a perfect seamless motion, shifting slightly following her head's movement moments after she turned and then back again.
"You live around here?"
"Yea, right around the corner actually." I pointed with my thumb in a sort of half lazy motion that was finished before it even started.
"That's crazy! I live, like, three blocks that way." She smiled, huge, and pointed over her shoulder.
"Where?" Like it mattered exactly, she lived three blocks away.
"28th between second and third."
"No kidding. So where are you off to?"
"Did I ever tell you who I worked for?"
"I don't remember, maybe you did."
"Okay. No kidding." He is a legendary portrait photographer. Mary wasn't kidding around.
"I'm the studio manager."
"How long have you been there?"
"Since college. We lost touch, I thought you knew?"
"Nope. That's great Mary." I was positive unless I said something right away, at this very moment she would beg off and I'd never see her again.
"So what are you doing tonight?"
"I'm not sure. You have something in mind?" I was surprised by her interest level, that or I was reading too much into the reply, she was being polite, infinitely polite.
"Going to meet a couple of people down on 1st and 10th. You wanna come?"
"Yea, sure, that would be fun. What time?"
"Nine-thirty or so." She didn't hesitate which means in the time that she saw me until this moment she had already agreed to meet me. She wanted to see me again.
"That's great. It's great to see you, really great." She smiled and hugged me again; more perfume inched its way into my nose.
"Okay, I'll see you then. Have a great day at work." God I was happy, so happy I could barely stand it.
Then I worried; mostly because I'm an Olympic-level worrier, or that she wouldn't possibly think the way I was thinking. It wasn't late enough for a drink, I could buy a beer at the deli down the street from the barbershop, the place with the Keno, but I nixed that idea as the thought of having a beer at ten in the morning scared me more than it made me feel happy, plus I realized that Mary had said that word "great" three times in one sentence, a bad sign by anyone's estimation.
Maybe I knew what his reaction would be when he saw her, and I didn't tell him because I wanted him to be impressed, or maybe I just wanted to keep it to myself, the joy of it, having Mary back in my atmosphere again. She wore the same pair of jeans she had on that morning, but a dark blue men's button down shirt replaced the white oxford she wore earlier and it was opened a button past conservative and a button above begging for it. I knew she was interested in me, she wore a touch more makeup, not a lot, because she wasn't that type of girl. She tended to rely on the way she looked, and nothing more, which involved some lipstick and a touch of eyeliner. Her cheeks were naturally rosy, and she looked refreshed, almost relaxed to be here, not a stitch of tension. Her skin had kept that naturally tanned tone she'd had for years, still, and I could stop staring at those forearms and hands, slightly covered with light brown hair that appeared to be as soft as cotton. Her hair was just fantastic and her profile was still unbelievable, really, her chest was just big enough to warrant inspection but not get in the way of her over-all appearance. I admired how her body fit her jeans, and her clothes complimented her in ever way. Holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon, she allowed her hips to lead the way to the back of the bar where the pool table was located and the rest of us were hanging out.
Glen's jaw dropped open when she walked in; he turned to whisper in my direction. "Did you know Mary was coming here tonight? When the fuck were you going to tell me about this? She's walking this way, God damn she's still beautiful." Glen was a friend from our collective college days, wiry, thin, manic, worried, obsessively quiet, and completely focused on his career.
Glen didn't bother asking me how my day went, or my week, even my month; he did however talk incessantly about his own job, week, workday, and life, non-stop. Sometimes I think he agrees to hang out with me because I listen to him without interruption. Before Mary arrived he told me in increasingly distinctive octaves how the Village Voice had it all wrong about the new R.E.M. album, how their music critic (he wouldn't even mention him by name) was nothing more than a shill for the leftist media, an out and out hater. He reminded me to hate the game not the player. The band was reaching it's pinnacle, great heights and that "Losing My Religion" was one of the finest songs every written. After he said this he continued to go on about his thoughts on modern music, criticism, and how R.E.M. was finding new an exciting ways to upend the popular mechanism known and "pop music". I knew the first time I heard "Losing My Religion" that it was a bogus song, a façade for Michael Stipe's homosexuality, which he'd always been reticent to share with the world. Gay or straight the man meant nothing to me.
"Hey Glen, what's new with you?"
I watched him hug her, it was a controlled hug observed by me with Technicolor clarity. Glen had no shot with Mary, but he did have the ability to flirt with her, which would make everything more difficult.
"Nothing, I mean everything, got a new job, working at a design firm in midtown." I could see Mary step back from Glen, not physically but subtlety with out any movement, she was going to let him talk. She reached an arm out for me, pulling me forward slightly and towards her, an absent minded embrace, being polite to all parties but most importantly she made contact with me.
"Nice to see you." She said to me, turning her head briefly to look me in the eye, I felt a flicker in my stomach as Glen began talking about his day as if everyone in the room was only there to listen to him.
The room became very small as if the whole city had vanished the moment Mary walked through the door of the bar, passing the mindless drunks perched in front of the long stretch of oak and the bartender standing over them pouring shots down their throats like the eager desperately thirsty baby birds they could only hope to be. The neon signs over her shoulders on the front widows facing 1st avenue glowed like they'd been on for a hundred years, they filled the space at the front of the bar with an ambient light that didn't seem natural but it was something that you couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
Glen finally stopped talking when he had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom.
"Who else is coming tonight?" I could see her eyes rolling around the room as she took a hit off her beer.
"David is supposed to be here, but he's with his girlfriend. She can't get anywhere on time, so he'll be here eventually."
"What's he up to these days?"
"He started his own company, working out of his apartment."
"Are Glen and David still living in that loft on Morgan Street?"
"Yea. It's the same place." I lost my train of thought; I knew only to answer to her in yes's or no's. Simple.
"So where are you working these days? Last I heard you were over at Peter Kaman's place on the west side."
"No, um, I mean yea, I was working there, I took a job on the Joan Rivers show. Kaman had shaved his client list down to one company, and then when they went out of business, well . . . he did to."
"Alexander's. He shot the weekly sale calendar for them right? Shit, that sucks. But you landed on your feet. That's great, what's that like. Oh my God, you must see everyone, lots of famous people."
"Not a soul. Joan can't get a single person to come on her show."
"You know, I've heard that." Mary smiled at me, and then laughed a little bit.
"I remember what tonight is." She continued to talk to me, just to me, she didn't look around the room for a better deal or the exit.
"It's your birthday. Did you think I'd forget?"
"Mary, you know, to be honest, no, I didn't, but we haven't seen each other in a long time, so I guess, it's not that big a deal."
"Twenty-five." I answered right away.
"Wow. It's been four years since we graduated college?"
"Four years for me, five for you."
"Well, who's counting?" Mary smiled again this time punctuating it with a hand on my shoulder. "Let me get you a birthday beer." She looked down to the PBR I had in my hand.
"Kind of looks small. Let me get a couple of them, cool?" She didn't wait for an answer moving towards the bar as Glen made his way back to us.
"Dude, she touched you. Contact is very big with women, she's interested."
"Shut up. Who cares?"
"She does . . . obviously."
Maybe she was there to see me, maybe she was here for another reason, something that I wouldn't or couldn't possibly understand. I had to stop over-thinking every single Goddamn thing that even had the most remote likeness to this situation. Glen was reading her every move like they were tell-tale signs of a woman in need. I saw her on the street this morning without the slightest idea that she still existed; she was gone from my field of thought. But clearly she did exist and since she'd been the first girl I ever dated, except for some silly bullshit crushes from high school and even more infantile nonsense of elementary school, she mattered in the big scheme of things. It meant more to me now because I would try to make it work.
First she stopped calling me. That happened after our last date, the one where I didn't have a condom, she wanted to have sex but I was unprepared because I had no idea that I would ever get that lucky with this girl. History would repeat itself, she would jerk me off under the covers, and that would be it. She asked me if I had protection like she was asking the dentist "Is this going to hurt?" She'd made up her mind to let me fuck her, she wasn't all in at this point, but she could sense I wanted it and I did, I just didn't think she'd allow it to happen. (She knew if it didn't happen this time that it would be the last chance we would ever have. You don't know that this is the last moment of a dying relationship, we were a couple in only the most textbook sense.) She never did before, so why start now. There was a lot of water under the bridge, hers and mine, and I knew if I got past over this hurdle it would be smooth sailing from here on in. If we had maybe we'd still be together. Or maybe it would make the breakup even worse, when someday it came around like it does for everyone.
That night wasn't unlike other nights. She'd made plans to cook me dinner at her apartment. I remember riding the elevator up to the fifth floor with flowers in one hand a bottle of Merlot in the other. The walls of the elevator car were lined with mirrors. My button down shirt was fresh from the dry cleaners; my leather jacket still fit me even if it was a little snug around the waist, and my face was shaved and my hair combed.
We ended up on the couch after a horrible dinner of baked chicken and rice, Mary was still learning how to cook, living alone can prevent culinary talents from growing.
"What are you working on these days?"
She broke away from me while I tried desperately to get her to swing a leg over and straddle me on the couch. She sat up straightening her self up right adjusting her shirt. I'd been here before, over the bra, soft skin surrounding everything, flat stomach.
"I'm not working on anything. I'm stuck."
"So get unstuck."
"Easy to say."
"Well, it's easy to do, just get your camera, get some film and go out and start shooting." She was very matter of fact about it. Like turning on a light switch, just reach over to the switch and flip it to the on position. I didn't know what to talk to her about. Photography as a topic could only take us so far. The rest wasn't going to be easy.
"Have you been dating anyone?"
"How does that have anything to do with what we're talking about?"
"Four years is a long time." She wouldn't tell me anyway, or she'd lie and make something up. Or she'd tell the truth, I wouldn't be able to tell either way.
"You like older."
"When do you think you started to understand what I like?"
"Mary. You just told me you were dating someone older, I remember in college you went after older guys, its like simple math."
"I'm not older. Does that mean I'm a goner?"
"Like I have no chance."
"I wouldn't say that."
"So how old was he?"
"Forty-five." She got up off the couch and the pup tent that was prominently on display in my lap began to recede from view as the conversation turned un-sexy. I watched her pick something up off the dining room table, which sat in front of a partition that divided the kitchen from the living room. I was as far away from her as possible. A cool breeze came in through the un-insulated bay window behind me. The summer before we started dating her father died. Mary was eternally sad because of it. She looked down as people talked to her, she stared off into the distance during group conversations, and she wasn't present in any way after he died.
Her apartment was a mixture of modern taste; Ikea and Bed, Bath and Beyond, mixed in with flea market finds, an old sewing machine table, and a Shaker end table with a matching footstool that had been carelessly pushed next to the easy chair by the darkened television set, which looked like it hadn't been on it years. With the easy chair's placement right next to it, you'd have to imagine it wasn't ever turned on, just an ornament in her apartment, something that you almost have to have even if you don't us it. The walls were lined spaciously with black and white photographs from Mary's idols: Bruce Weber, Garry Winogrand, and her favorite, Elliot Erwitt. Each picture was framed in brushed silver metal and the photograph, or in most cases the poster, was matted carefully with beveled cuts around the opening. One look at the images and I knew they weren't the real thing. Bruce Weber wouldn't cost anything under a million dollars, Mary wasn't bathing in cash, so I knew it was a replica. There was a certain sense of inertia; like things weren't moving in this space: Old magazines from years ago sat on the coffee table in front of the sofa in stacks, books carefully placed on a waist high shelf near the corner of the apartment looked hazy and out of focus, a thin layer of dust covered the spines and the tops of the ruffled pages. The popcorn ceiling wasn't unusual our out of place but seemed like the last thing Mary was worried about.
"How long do you think you'll work for someone else?"
"Not forever." She blew a plume of smoke into the air around her. She had moved a stack of old New York Times magazine's off the easy chair and sat down taking a judgmental pose, crossed her legs and then carefully setting the ash tray down on her knee. With her arms crossed she brought the cigarette to her mouth and then returned it to the ashtray for a moment and flicked off the spent ash like she was punctuating her thoughts, expelling the smoke into the air, which created a type of moving veil around her. I wondered when we'd both quit smoking, but more importantly I felt a pang of sadness drift through my stomach as it was obvious to me that I wasn't getting laid tonight. I lit up a cigarette from the pack that was tucked into my leather jacket pocket. The jacket laid out on the edge of the sofa, it sat there waiting for me to pick it up and put it on. The whole room seemed to be staring at it waiting for my decision to slide my arms through the sleeves and turn the collar up. But I didn't because I was still holding out hope for an overnight stay.
"So what are you planning on working on?" I didn't listen to her at first, I was still thinking of a way to turn the tide that seemed dead set on pushing me out the door and back towards my home.
"I said, what are you working on, what's next?" She wasn't interested in me in the way I thought she was. I had to get over it at this point.
"You were the most prolific photographer at school. What were you shooting a day when you were in Rome?
"Twenty or thirty rolls." I spent my days on the streets of Rome photographing people.
"I'm lucky if I've taken a roll over the last three years."
"You're doing something else now. So it goes away. Right?" She wasn't having it and no matter what I said she would always be right.
Maybe the day was colder than I thought it would be, but the leather jacket I'd been wearing since the ninth grade just wasn't cutting it anymore. I took the elevator to the third floor, a lazy man's way up, but I just didn't have it in me to climb the stairs even though it would take me half the time.
Up the three small steps to the landing that led past the glass display cases to the equipment cage at the end of the hall on the far side of the building. Light streamed in over her shoulder and cut her in silhouette, this is the first time I'd really seen her, for real. Other years; freshman and sophomore she was just an object, a person in a blur or a face in the crowd of upper classman I tried not to stare at when I passed them on the street.
She was surprised I was going into photography, actually the look on her face was complete shock followed by; "You're going into photo? As a major?"
From there I was hooked, but she wasn't the person who was staring back at me now, she was thinner, she'd lost weight, back then she was heavy and wore a belt that I thought should be around a cowboy's waist, and oversize sweaters with turtle neck collars but her hair, and those eyes and her soft pudgy face were hard to look away from. Now she was skinny, scary skinny.
She'd turned slightly and the sunlight was no longer casting her in complete shadow she smiled, which caught me off guard.
"Mary, you look great." My camera strap was wrapped around my wrist and the Canon F1 I used was tucked in the crook of my arm. My body was thick and heavy, my pants tugged tightly at the waist. I could almost see the circumference of the cheeks on my face when I looked down the bridge of my nose. She wasn't interested in me, but I could tell she was insecure about her new figure, she wanted to be noticed.
"Thanks. Hey, that's a nice thing for you to say." She looked at me as she spoke and the "hey" part was a break in the conversation; she didn't expect me to say anything.
"I mean it. You look beautiful." It didn't matter what I said now as I'm sure she didn't hear me, her cheeks turned red and I ran a hand through my own hair to make sure it was falling on the right side of my head and I quickly wiped the mild layer of sweat that had grown like a fungus on my upper lip and around my nose, she barley noticed me nervously standing there at the equipment cage. The room she was in on the other side of the counter on the fourth floor of the photography building was filled with shelves of photography equipment that was lent to students for as long as they liked. Mary was in charge of the cage for the morning. Outside the clouds were towering over the city, a wind had followed in closely behind a rain storm that covered the streets and buildings during the previous night and now what was left resembled a faded sweat stain on a sweatshirt, barley dark with tone, creeping under window sills and dripping from the edges of rear view mirrors on the water spattered cars that lined the street outside the building.
When I walked downtown earlier that morning I thought about the voices, the snippets I'd heard from the open windows that lined the street I walked down everyday from my apartment on the other side of town.
In a voice like my mothers, questioning and slightly confused, "Are you sure you're ready to back to work? I mean it's not the end of the world if you stay at home, is it?"
Or the teenager pleading. "Why don't these fit? I'm not going to school without them, what do I have to do to make them fit?"
Finally a man speaking slowly to himself. "My tea is supposed to be ready, I can hear her back there, tinkering around, what the fuck is she doing, make the God damn breakfast and bring me my tea. She's never fast enough." I heard him say as he turned the page of the book he was reading. The first floor apartments sprinkled along my street and I got closer to school they faded away, becoming something else, homes owned by wealthier people who didn't have to open their windows, maybe they had central air as a silence hung on those houses like a third coat of paint.
Once the sun broke through I knew that I'd be able to take pictures. The river that ran along the water front was still being dug out, the huge machines were slicing open the dried out bed and making it wider. I shot twenty rolls of film, the pictures of the men working in the mud and taking the dirt out with front end loaders and putting into dump trucks. I watched them carefully, each man braced himself against the wind blowing in the from the west, slithering its way across the towns on the horizons, over the medium-sized seven-story buildings that were owned by banks and the city, the teenaged sized skyline hung over their heads like a bad painting at a garage sale. I could see on their faces that this was all they'd ever done, and would ever do, perhaps they thought of themselves as part of this construction, something integral and important. Either was they were resigned to it, their minds didn't wander or carry aspirations of greater things; jobs, better lives with less stress and more money. I stood behind the fence and took pictures of everyone as they worked.
Our first date was a battle to find something to talk about; I could sense her easing away, like she was drifting from me but with a part of her body I couldn't see.
"I was sorry to hear about your father."
"I don't want to talk about him."
"What are your plans for next year?"
"I'm going to Rome."
Her face lit up, like a switch had been thrown and the vastly dark warehouse that was locked away seemed spacious and inviting. "When?"
"That's not next year."
"I'm going before next year. Right. I'll be a senior next year. What's it like?"
"Being a senior?"
"It's scary, you know, life starts for me at the end of this year." She was clinically aware of her future, she sounded like she was steeling herself for its probability.
Our dates got better. She cooked me dinner and put pennies in the vases of flowers I brought her. She met me at the school bar and we danced to the music like everyone else, we drank beer and watched people get drunk and we made out, then we made out some more. We'd been on a dozen dates before I left for Rome. She drove me to the airport and cried when I left. I wrote her everyday, and at the end of the first week I had letter telling me how much she missed me. The trip became a series of dates I had to climb over like hurdles before I could be home with her.
I remembered the carved tightness of her stomach where her hips met her upper thighs, like polished marble. The heat we created under the covers was wet wool, thick and heavy. Many times she fell asleep before I did and other times I could hear her walking out of the room the wood floors creaking patiently as she passed. Sometimes she smoked a cigarette on the sofa in the living room, naked, and then she'd return smelling like a poorly washed ashtray. The down comforter was a revelation, a massive shield against that daylight; she kept us underneath it and told me that nothing could change if we never got out of bed. But we did because we had to. I ran my hands over her body and realized that someday soon this would be gone.
When I noticed she fell quiet at the same time I did at different times of the day I started to worry. Sometimes we'd just sit together without saying a word and that's when I realized we were the same. She kept to herself and I never told anyone anything that was more than a whispering thought, a type of cloaked silence which kept us both safe and secure, our thoughts to ourselves and the rest of the world at arms length.
After I returned from Rome our time together was brief and I only remember when she told me it was over; Michael Penn's "No Myth" was playing on the living room stereo and to this day I can't hear that song without thinking of Mary. She said what I knew all along, which was that we were too much alike and this wasn't going to work out, she didn't see a future.
It was hard to hear at the time but she was probably right and as it turned out she was more right than I'll even admit. I wanted a girlfriend and I thought somehow it was a flaw deep inside me if I remained single. She wanted validation of her own existence; that she was real, here on earth, alive and breathing.
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