I ran into him, by accident, in a department store in New York. Saks. He was buying a printed silk scarf—probably for one of his many paramours, I think, wryly. The familiar ache rises up and makes me turn away. I am going to pretend that I have not seen him and walk on, but just as I do, he turns.
“Reina! Is that you?”
His eyes flash with the sparkles that first made me fall in love with him, and he takes my arm.
“What a lovely surprise to run into you! How have you been? You look amazing!”
I manage a smile, privately relieved that I had taken some time with my appearance that morning. I know I look good. He gives me a once-over that would be highly inappropriate save from someone who had known your body intimately, and for a long time.
I think: Of all the department stores, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine …”
but I say,
“Jack. How nice to see you.”
He turns back to the saleslady who is wrapping the scarf while she processes his credit card.
“Hold on a second,” he says to me, not relinquishing my arm.
He signs the receipt with his right hand, still resting his left hand on my arm. His left hand has a wedding ring.
Of course I knew that he had remarried. The information had been batted around at a cocktail party and brought to my attention by my husband. “Did you know …?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, shrugging it off, although I experienced a sudden lightheadedness and was having trouble breathing.
He turns back to me:
“Can we … I mean … are you in a big rush? Or can we have a drink somewhere?”
“I … have a meeting I’m supposed to …” I find myself stammering and he sees me flush and smiles broadly.
“Ah, come on! How long has it been? Five years? More? I want to know what you’ve been up to. Can’t the meeting wait?”
It has been seven years. I look at my watch, apprehensively.
“I suppose so,” I say, regretting it immediately. But my heart has risen like a helium balloon. “I’ll … have to make a phone call.”
“Go ahead,” he says.
He turns to take the shopping bag that the saleslady holds out to him and I see her face respond to the eye-sparkling smile he gives her. Like they all respond.
But I take my cellphone from my purse and walk a distance away, knowing that I will be talking to my answering machine.
“Hello?” I say, into the phone, “It’s Reina. I will be late for the meeting. Please go on without me. Thanks.” I turn the phone off and stare into the distance, amazed at what a cool liar I am. I walk back to him.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here. I know a nice restaurant not far from here. It’s after lunch hour and I’m sure they’ll let us sit with a drink for a while.”
And just like that, as though we were still married, as though I was still his wife, his possession, as though the seven years of therapy had never happened, I let myself be led out of the store.
“Look” he says, pointing up to a wrought iron fire-escape on an apartment building across the street from us, “Look how New Yorker’s strive for a tiny touch of nature.” I look. There is a potted geranium sitting in the one shaft of sunlight that has made it through the concrete labyrinth. “In California,” he says, “there are beautiful flowers all around.”
We turn into a dimly lit restaurant — a French place — that is empty except for a bartender who looks up at us, scowling, as though he has just seen his cigarette break flying out the window. Behind the bar there are racks of wine bottles in a geometric pattern.
We sit down at one of the tables with a blue and white checkered tablecloth on it and the bartender approaches us, resigned.
“Something to drink?” he asks, pleasantly, in an accent that I take as French. Maybe scowling is just his natural demeanor.
“Yes,” says Jack. “Two extra-dry vodka martinis, straight up with a twist.” He remembers.
Then he looks at me,
“You still drink martinis, don’t you?”
I smile and nod, knowing that I don’t drink them in the middle of the day.
“Reina, Reina, Reina!” he says, looking at me and shaking his head. “Look at you! Red is your color!”
“So you always said.”
“I guess the divorce did you good!”
“Oh, Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. The divorce didn’t ‘do me good’; I just pulled myself together afterward and managed to go on with my life. (Good for you, I think! Assert yourself a little.)
“What about you?” I ask. “ You are looking very well also.”
He sits back and sighs, looks down at the table.
“Yeah. Things have been … good. I’m … I’m just in town for a short time. Actually, leaving tomorrow morning.” He looks up. “I am living in California now. Doing the tennis thing. “
“Ah. That accounts for the tan,” I say, smiling.
A piebald cat emerges from behind the bar and sits on its haunches licking its front paws.
“Yeah. It’s a nice life out there. I don’t know … you get a little older and the winters here start to wear you down. You might consider it yourself.” He looks up hopefully.
The waiter puts the two martini glasses down on the table and leaves.
“You know, I think of you often, Reina,” he says, fingering the stem of his glass. “Do you ever think of me?” He looks up waiting for my answer.
“Sure.” I say. “I think of you every time I wear a piece of the jewelry you gave me.” (Good retort. Keep hitting them back, I say to myself. All you have to do is get them over the net.)
It is beautiful jewelry. He has good taste. Some for my birthday; some for our anniversaries, and some for when he’d come home much too late. When all the wars are over and civilizations crushed, jewelry is what will remain. If you don’t believe me, go to the Met.
What I don’t say is that I once stood stock still on a busy New York street thinking I saw him, only to realize, as he came closer, that it was a stranger. Or how, late at night, when my mind wanders, I recall his hands. Or how my life went unspooling when he left and how I ran like a frantic child to pick up the thread.
He raises his glass.
“To old times,” he says.
I raise mine.
“To old times.”
We clink glasses.
The martini is good. Cold and sharp and the vodka infuses my mouth with its familiar bite. May it give me strength, I pray.
He studies my face. He tilts his head and slides his bottom teeth forward, slightly, absently scraping his top teeth. He eyes are searching mine, looking from one to the other. I feel the hackles or the shackles or whatever you call them rise on the back of my neck.
“I hear you’re with someone nice.” he says.
“Really?” I am taken aback. “Who told you?”
“Oh, people are always giving me updates on you,” he says.
I am surprised, but pleasantly so.
There is a pause. The ball is in my court. I have to say something. I meet his eyes.
“Yes,” I say. (Noncommittal. But still an answer. The score is thirty-love. Only, don’t mention “love.”)
He sighs and sits back.
My husband is nice, I think. He is kind and loving and takes good care of me. I have a happy life. A calm and centered life. But how can I say — it is like a missing limb that has been replaced by a brace: an up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art artificial leg. That you strap on and you can walk as though nothing had happened. It is perfectly functional. But it doesn’t stop you from dreaming that you still had the real thing.
Somewhere in the back of my closet in a shoe box there is a letter in his familiar handwriting. A letter that says, “You need someone who will take a little care of you. I was never good at taking care of you. I let you get fat and unhappy.”
“He takes good care of me,” I say. (Game, set, match!)
“No children?” he asks. He knows the answer. If there had been children his sources would have told him, surely.
“No,” I say.
“We should have had some” he says. “Maybe that would have kept the marriage together.”
“Ha! It rarely does that, so I am told,” I say. “Anyway, I’m passed all that, I’m afraid.”
“Why? You’re still young, Reina. You are two years younger than I am. And I am … what? 41?”
“You are 45, Jack.”
“Oh. Really? Ah. Yeah, I guess so.”
“And you?” I ask, trying to make my voice airy. “No children?” (I don’t want to hear the answer.)
“No,” he says. “She has two from her first marriage, but they live with their father. She didn’t want any more.”
I nod. My heart resumes beating.
“Still. We should’ve had some, Reina. They would have been something else!” He smiles at me.
I manage a smile back, thinking, Yeah. They would have been something else!
We stay silent for a while, drinking our martinis and thinking of the children we never had.
“I’m glad that things worked out well for you, Reina. That you seem happy.”
Maybe I should tell him about my recurring dream: the one where I am standing at the luggage carousel of some airport. My suitcase has sprung its locks and is going around and around with the top open. All my belongings are spilling out. My intimates, my bras and panties are strewn across the metal belt, for all to see. I try to pull the suitcase off the conveyer while at the same time stretch out one hand for the items that are moving out of my reach. I am trying to hold everything together and keep the lid of the suitcase from springing open again. (I don’t need a therapist to explain the dream to me.)
A group of rowdy young people enter the restaurant. They appear to have been drinking. They sprawl at a nearby table, laughing and speaking French. The waiter eyes them and brings over some menus. One girl gets up and sits down on her boyfriend’s lap. She is caressing his neck.
We watch them. There goes our quiet drink. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine.
“My hotel is right down the block,” he says. “The New York Palace. Madison and 50th. You know it, it used to be the Helmsley Palace. Why don’t we go there where it is quiet? I have a dinner I have to attend this evening, but we’ll still have time …”
My blood feels as though it has been carbonated.
‘Yes!” I say, “Yes!” But the words that come out of my mouth are: “I can’t, Jack, I have to get back to my husband.”
He nods, releases my hand, and finishes his drink. I finish mine, excuse myself and find the ladies’ room.
Inside I collapse on a striped divan. Oh God! To be able to pretend for one hour that all the hurt had never happened. That we are still young and so in love. To shut our eyes and cling to each other as we used to; to feel his arms around me, his mouth on mine …to fill the well of longing for just a tiny moment. To feel whole again!
Why did I have to arrive at Saks at exactly that time? What if I had stopped in at the shoemaker’s as I had planned to do, and not suddenly change my mind when I saw the bus approaching? I never would have been at the scarf counter at the same time he was. Why didn’t I turn away a split second sooner, before he saw me? Can all of life hinge on such a tenuous element of chance?
I pull myself together and run a comb through my hair. I add some lipstick and determine to go back out there and face up to the challenge. The martini has made its way into my bloodstream and is giving me strength.
He stands as I approach the table.
“I’ve paid the bill,” he says.
“Thank you,” I manage to say. We leave the restaurant and stand outside for a moment. He is headed in one direction; I in the other.
“Maybe we could meet every five years or so,” he says. “It’s been nice catching up with you.”
“Sure” I say.
I smile at him. A lock of his perfectly coiffed hair has blown lose and I reach to pat it back into place, but stop myself. I think of Barbra Streisand standing in front of the Plaza with Robert Redford at the end of THE WAY WE WERE. That gesture she did spoke volumes. It was so inmate. It told of the affection they still had for each other; of past lives living together, laughing in the sunshine and making love, but there was also the poignancy of the differences that rose up to crush the love — not all of it. Just enough so as not to be able to live together.
I kiss his cheek. “See you in five years,” I say.
I turn and head down the block. I can feel he is watching me, but I don’t turn back. I walk into Saks and go up to the same counter where ladies’ scarves are sold. It only takes me a minute to find a beautiful silk scarf that is way out of my price range. I take it up to the saleslady. It is the same saleslady who was there before. She doesn’t recognize me. That often happens when you stand beside Jack, I think. Standing in his aura. No one can see you because the light that he gives off is so blinding.
I pay for the scarf, head out of the store wearing it and hail a taxi. I give the driver my address and sit back in the seat. There will be no one at home, I know. My husband is away on a business trip. One end of the scarf flutters in the open window.
Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.