He had picked her up at the lower Manhattan café, Beau’s, where he was accustomed to having a nightcap with his cronies at the end of day. Both were victims of the city’s power to crush the best and brightest drawn to its promise; both had been defeated by its colossal indifference. For him, an aspiring artist, cocaine had been his undoing—scrambling delicate circuits of intellectual nuance and aesthetic sensitivity, his birthright, into a monotonous quest for the elixir of excitation, leveler of pain.
For her, a Harvard graduate and published scholar of feminist literature, and a willowy mid-western beauty, the coping mechanism of alcohol, to numb her acuteness, and blur her monstrous insecurity and self-loathing, had predictably become an end in itself. It was destroying her just as surely as cocaine was incrementally destroying him, line by line.
A few lines snorted in the privacy of the café restroom, during which certain liberties were taken by both parties, followed by a few more gin and tonics at the bar and the Harvard girl and the Fulbright artist soon found themselves in the back of a taxi to Sunnyside, where the lady kept an apartment.
Ironically, by the time they got to her place, they had exchanged such a brilliant volley that it was a pity they hadn’t met sooner when they were whole—not now when it was too late for it to do either any good. Oblivious to such considerations, their passion carried them up the four flights to her studio, a shamble she never cleaned because she stayed drunk to keep from slashing her wrists. After a protracted moment of coupling, they passed out and dreamt of what might have been, this prematurely burnt out, brilliant pair.
In the morning, he awakened to her vacuuming, as she scurried about the apartment trying to clean it up for the unexpected visit of her mother and twin sister just arrived from Tulsa, at this very moment downstairs insistently ringing the security bell to be let up.
Nerves jangled, the erstwhile-Fulbright artist struggled into his clothes and boots, brushed past her on his way to the door, returning, on second thought, to retrieve his dog-eared copy of Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a prop he kept at the café as a conversation piece. He would not see her ever again.
Twenty-four years later. She lies in a cemetery outside Tulsa, in the family plot, under a headstone end-dated the day of their “affair.”
And he is sitting at an outdoor café in the south of France, his daily ritual, sipping Pernod in the afternoon sun and viewing, in epiphany, that very same headstone in his mind’s eye, which, amazingly, he’s never known about, or thought about (much less visited) until this very moment.
Unaccountable but nonetheless true, his epiphany is the sort of phenomenon most scoff at, grounded as we are in the tangible and mundane. But not for him—he’d known miracles as well as living horrors in his time, and was conversant and comfortable with both. Realists are invited to conjure a phenomenological explanation for his epiphany—a mysterious photo sent via mail, or email, or slipped under his door, accompanied by her obituary—but he was free of the need for such rationalizations.
Was it sentimentality that was leached from his bones by the scourge of cocaine, along with his youth? Hair turned gray, dignified, soul at rest, he feels no regrets. The image of them making love in the back of the taxi, an auto-da-fé of passion, elicits a mild ripple of pleasure at the recollection. But his fires are long cooled. He has only memories. And the inexorable certainty that there was nothing he might have done to save her, that day or any other. For her, the die was cast long before him, and he never bothered to know her. How would it have changed him had they mattered to one another? Life is full of such missed opportunities, he concludes. He lifts his Pernod to take a sip and mull over this platitude, but the glass never reaches his lips.
A bullet fired from a passing car on the boulevard lances his neck, severing his carotid artery. He bleeds out slowly, blood pooling like rubies, sight and sound fading in a pleasant whirl. He expires with a sigh, dropping his head to the table, as though only resting from his recent mental wanderings.