A week before autumn settled in New York, I walked past The Penrose bar and the CityMD, then made a familiar right turn to a glossy, residential street on 86th and Second Avenue. There is no such thing as accidents or happenstance when walking in the city. If you head North, the street numbers increase. If you tread east, the avenues decrease. I passed 84th street and saw the sign to 85th. I turned right to leave Third Avenue and enter the Second.
With a few more minutes to spare, I lit a cigarette out of habit and paced in circles before I approached the designated apartment. I noticed that my boobs looked bigger than it really was in this white boatneck top when I saw my reflection through a bodega window.
“It’s cold out today.”
My head turned to his voice. I’ll call him Armen.
“You didn’t have to come out,” I said. “I know your door code.”
“Come inside. You can smoke in my living room.”
Armen lived alone in a penthouse apartment in the Upper East Side. But the largest window faced north, so the sun never shone in. The kitchen, even in the height of spring, was a vault of gloom. A spiral staircase awkwardly mounted in the center of the living room led to his bedroom. I was a bit taken aback when I let myself inside. The last time I had cleaned it was seven months ago and it had transformed back into an eerie disarray.
“I tried to tidy up before you got here. You’d try to clean it if I didn’t,” said Armen, reading my expression. He picked up my shoes and placed it on the rack.
“Will you make me a drink?” I said. I pushed a pile of his worn-once clothes off the couch and made a place to sit down. I lit another cigarette once I did.
Treading my eyes on the window ledge, I wished he had someone to buy him flowers to line up the vacant space. Flowers would’ve done nice things to his apartment, if he had the will to keep them alive.
He handed me a glass and told me it was strawberry soju. Under the LED, I noticed that his face was flushed and guessed that he was about three drinks in already. I didn’t want to catch up but, out of habit, took a big sip out of the glass.
“How have you been?” He asked tensely.
“I left the city once the virus hit. I came back here three weeks ago.”
I didn’t have to ask him whether he had left. I knew he hadn’t. There was a brand-new game machine hooked to the TV and stacks of paperback novels on his desk I had never seen before.
There are people who are sent off by a hoard of teary-eyed family members at the airport to John F. Kennedy and there are people, like him, who purchase a one-way ticket and never mention his family again. Not everybody has a home who wants them back, he said to me once.
I walked over to his desk and picked up the book on top of the stack. It was called I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. Each chapter was dedicated to a room in a hotel that she had designed herself in the novel’s index. The writings varied from pamphlets, playscripts, news reports, and streams of consciousness. Armen loved exhaustive work. I knew he must have read all seven-hundred pages of this novel without a sleep or meal in between.
Back in the springtime, I would read my novellas and let myself glance at him when I reached the end. He’d be holding the same book with detached stoicism. What life served him before me made him immune to fictional tragedies. But when he saw me look at him, his face lit up in a pure, aquiline smile, as if he had forgotten everything about himself and just saw me. Naturally, I would smile back.
Finally, we talked for an hour about prose, proclivity, monotony, urgency, and self-maintenance. The past seven months. I said very little and let him regurgitate, sipping slowly on my soju. When the ice clunk on the bottom signaling an empty glass, he stopped talking. The smoke obscured the distance between his and mine. I walked over to the fridge and chose a beer. He had mentioned on the topic of urgency that he had lost twelve pounds since the last time I’d seen him. It was odd to me that he thought of weight as a sense of urgency, but seeing the contents inside his fridge, I understood. There was nothing inside to choose besides beer, soju, and yogurt.
“Look,” he said when I returned. “I haven’t stopped thinking about you since the last time I saw you.”
I pulled the tab open and tasted the beer.
“Yes. I know what you mean—but why?” I was disoriented and engaged, watchful and cautious with my body language, flirtatious and blunt in my speech.
“From the moment you walked into the tavern, you struck me. Do you remember what outfit you wore that night? A big brown puffer coat. I think that was a men’s coat. You had baggy jeans and told me you stained them with ink before we met. You ate without hesitation, but couldn’t finish your plate, and made me finish the rest. On the first night we met! I finished yours and didn’t finish mine. Then you got drunk and bought two tiramisus and ate them off your hand. Anyway, you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met. So smart and pretty, too.”
I was both stunned and intimidated at this sudden confession. It wasn’t very common nowadays to make such straightforward pronouncements of your attraction and passion to another. That, I thought, was pretty respectful to admit, although, ill-timed.
Then there was the kiss on the terrace an hour later. He asked me before he kissed me, and I said yes. Twenty-six years old, an established businessman, lips profoundly firm, committing, and promising. It was something I never tasted in college. Every kiss in college had reeked of insincerity, although light and idyllic. His demanded and promised to return.
I pulled back and fell to the floor.
“Lay down with me,” I pleaded in drunken stupor. “Lay down. Feel the breeze!”
“I can’t. I’m going to say something I shouldn’t say to you. Not right now.”
“Then don’t. Just lay down. Please.”
He kneeled down beside me and kissed me again. I kissed him back, but my mind had sobered up. Immediately overcome with guilt and regret for letting myself in that night, for returning to 86th and Second, I pulled back and caressed his face. I was unruly and selfish, so was he.
After I left that night, I sent him a text message.
“I’ve given some thought about what you said to me. I promised you that I would give you a real answer, no matter what it was, so this is me giving it to you. As I’ve said to you before, I think you and I are really different people. I think we both need space to move on from one another, and I don’t think we should see each other ever again.”
I blocked his number the minute after I pressed send and that was the end.
It has been several months since the night and his response I will never know, of course, but I’m sure it was lengthy and sincere and respectful. Sending me good wishes. After all, he had handed me his heart in beautifully crafted prose, like the books he read. He remembered little bits of me the way every lover should. But all I really wanted that night was for him to lay down beside me, to drop the ball, and let go of the politesse and courtship. To feel the breeze!
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt, Kurt Vonnegut wrote once.