She came from another decade. The ‘20s, I thought, but wasn't sure why, as I stepped on the morning N train. The book she was reading wasn't familiar, but the author caught my eye. I was a mess that morning: running late, again, sweaty for a job interview.
This was my first summer in New York, and I'd been binging on Fitzgerald. It started with Gatsby; somewhere amidst OKCupid dates, I'd thought of another New York bachelor and wondered if Nick Carraway might have tips for a city amateur like me.
A space opened up next to her on the bench and, absentmindedly, I sat down. Her big sunglasses made me think of Joan Didion, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot. Her sun hat was straw colored, with a pink flower tucked into the navy band. She belonged in black and white, I thought — a noir-ish old movie I'd want to see: tragic heroine or femme fatale. I wondered about her book. I tried, for the fifth time, to knot my tie.
"I hope this doesn't sound weird," she said, "but I like your tie." It was salmon. "That color makes me think gay or fratboy. But you don't seem like either."
Not knowing what else to say, I said, "Thanks," and then, "Nope, not gay. Never in a fraternity." I struggled with my clunky duffle, to fit it under my seat. "My brother likes boys, though, and he was with me when I bought this tie." Silence. She smiled. I noticed a bit of tattoo on her hip, wondered where it went. "He was in a frat, too."
I started to ask about her: Pittsburgh, just moved here from there; her big Italian family explained her olive complexion and brown eyes. Her voice was raspy, pleasant like a singer's in a smoky jazz bar. The book, Trimalchio, was the original title of The Great Gatsby. This was Fitzgerald's first draft. She was reading it ahead of the release of the DiCaprio movie, which she was looking forward to, and —
A brass band stepped onto our train and started belting out New Orleans jazz. We smiled awkwardly at each other over the tumult, shrugged and traded glances. The band hopped off a few stops before mine — 57th street, maybe — leaving us a few more minutes of idle chat before Times Square. I grinned at her, said, "Here's my stop, nice to meet you," and stepped off.
Only as the doors closed did I realize I'd lost her: no number, no email. I didn't even know her name.
Drones: Obama made a decision about drones. We'd make less of them, use them or not use them in Afghanistan, I think, I can't remember. I was keen on the story that Friday morning, though, a week later. I was staring into my iPhone on the N again, when I happened to glance up. And saw her. Still reading Trimalchio, still wearing the flower in her hat, across the train from me.
“Gotta play it cool,” I thought to myself. “Can't go straight over to talk to her. Finish your article first.”
I kept reading — Even as he envisions scaling back the targeted killing, Mr. Obama embraced ideas to limit his own authority — then glanced up to make sure she wasn't gone. She was looking at me. She smiled. I smiled and awkwardly waved.
“You've got to go talk to her now. Finish your article.”
I walked across the car.
"How's the book?" I asked. She smiled and said it was great.
I learned a little more this time, with no jazz band interrupting: a stylist, doing hair at a fancy Village salon, she studied education at college back in Pittsburgh, planning to be a teacher, but she decided she wasn't cut out for it. She said to work with kids, you need to be a good person. Teachers should be role models, and she didn't think she was pure enough for that. I'm almost sure "pure" was her word. Whatever word she used, it tripped my heartbeat.
My cousin joked that she might be a subway floozy. "How do you know she doesn't keep slips of paper in her purse to pass out to every guy she sees?" he asked over the phone. I told him she didn't seem that way at all.
My cousin is gay and single, a furniture maker, banjo player and gourmand chef in Alabama, more interested in carpentry, cooking, country and bluegrass music than in most people, especially women. He is a smart person and a keen observer, though, and I had to admit he had a point, as I hung up my phone and stepped into the Sparrow Tavern.
The bar I'd suggested is down the street from my apartment, but I was then still getting to know it. We sat in the back, under the chalkboard menu, and I liked the easy friendly way she chatted with our waitress about veggie options. Looking back, it seems she and I had plenty to talk about that night. We ordered grilled cheese sandwiches, bourbon cocktails and beers from Singlecut, the local Astoria brewery. We traded stories about being new to New York. I had five months on her and tried a bit to play the experienced New Yorker.
In her head, I must have been just a few misleading associations — the South, writer, jazz — and in mine, she was Pittsburgh, Gatsby, glamour, the ‘20s. We kept looking across the candlelight in that obvious way you do on a first date that's going well. I felt more like a character in a sitcom or a movie than I had before, a thought that made me embarrassed to consider, so I tried not to. Our hands found a reason to touch.
The text I got from her the next morning showed a book. Her purple fingernailed thumb held it open to the ripped corner of the last page. "You have a piece of my book," she wrote.
We spent the start of our summer like teenagers: walks through Astoria Park, past the June fairgrounds. We bought popsicles from the ice cream truck. We took pictures of each other at Socrates Sculpture Park, next to stone lions. She texted me photos: a headless barbie doll next to a dumpster; the scrunchy-faced black pug from Fox & Boy; the posh salon where she worked; her face in a bandana with big sunglasses, hair splayed on the grass; colorful llamas from the exhibition in Grand Central that summer.
I don't remember if we really held hands much or if that's just my sentimental memory, but I do remember telling each other stories on our Astoria Park walks about complex pasts, testing the waters of what we should share.
I was at my friend's summer barbecue party, where we'd had our first beers around noon. She got there when she got off work, after midnight. I kept her waiting in the dark outside the door. Tipsy, I'd forgotten my phone and missed her texts.
I don't have any solid memories of that night at my friend's apartment, just fragmentary images: her sitting on a tall chair; me mopping up spilled wine with a paper towel; me leaning on her and laughing, trying to convince her to come home with me.
The same cousin who had cautioned me to beware the subway seductress had visited me that June for his brother's bachelor party in New York. Before leaving he told me (joking again, I think), "Taylor, you're living like you're 18 at 28." The night before, I had woken up on the N train at 5 A.M., having fallen asleep and ridden it all the way to Coney Island. In my defense, it was a bachelor party.
The text message record includes these from me: "Where is you?" (at 11 P.M.) and "Nous manquons de marijuana." When she replied with a sad-faced emoticon and "I don't know what that means!", I answered, "French. I am made of drunk."
The next morning, the party hostess scolded me by instant message conversation, kind of joking. I'd been a mess the night before, she said. Too much of whatever mixed drink they were passing around. "You should apologize to her," she said.
I texted her, telling her I heard I'd acted like a drunken fool last night. I couldn't remember what I'd done, but if I'd said anything "stupid or obnoxious or mean," I wanted to say I was sorry. "Nothing mean," she texted back, "but you were plastered. You kept telling me how happy you were and putting me in headlocks."
I told her I thought those were meant to be hugs.
Gradually, her responses to my texts came slower. One day, after disappearing to her best friend's wedding back in Pittsburgh for a week, she wrote to say she needed some space. She didn't think she should rush too fast into dating while she was still new to the city. I wrote back that I understood, and meant it. I felt a bit that way myself.
On my phone, there are no more texts from her after July 8 — "I think I just need friends now more than intimacy, and I kind of freaked myself out" — until February 16, my 29th birthday. Facebook, I assume, must have told her, and she texted me in all caps with an exclamation at the end. I remember how nice it made me feel.
Taylor Beck writes for GQ, Fast Company and other magazines in New York. He was once a dream researcher in Kyoto, a teacher in rural Japan and a neuroscience flunky in labs from Princeton to St. Louis. He agrees with David Foster Wallace that reading is the best way out of a skull-shaped cage, and with both The Flaming Lips and Copernicus that we are floating in space.
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