I WALKED AWAY from the Malibu diner, heading for a bus stop down the street where I could catch the 126 into Manhattan. As I crossed Fourteenth, jaywalking to the north side, I turned and watched as one of the Jeffs headed south down Park Avenue. He had his hands stuffed into his jeans and I noticed—as he walked—how pigeon-toed I am. Just a few feet away the other Jeff got into Grainne’s Jetta, started it up, and pulled out of the diner’s small parking lot. The silver Volkswagen then merged with the traffic on Fourteenth and began to drive away. I could see my own eyes in the rearview mirror as the Jetta disappeared. After the car was out of sight, I turned back toward Park Avenue, watching Jeff head south until he finally turned left at Tenth and disappeared. I glanced down at my watch, only to find it still flashing twelve o’clock.
There was no one else at the bus stop. I entered the small enclosure, leaned against an ad for riverfront condos, and tried to enjoy the breeze that blew into my face. The morning had brought the first cool day in a long time. It was still sunny but no longer hot. Traffic lazily went by in both directions on Fourteenth.
The bus arrived and, when it did, I fished the fare out of my pockets and got on. I took out my iPod and pressed shuffle, leaned against the window, and then closed my eyes. As the bus coasted through the Lincoln tunnel I tried not to think about Grainne and Zachery in Montclair. Yesterday I’d picked her up from the airport, finally back from the exhausting weeks with Heather. It felt like months since I’d seen her, and then—after just one night together—I was leaving them; that broke my heart.
At Port Authority I made my way through the underground maze to the subway. Looking at a large digital clock near the Hudson News newsstand, I could see it was 11:28 AM. I hopped on an express train that took me to Seventy-second Street in one quick jolt. Once above ground I headed north through Verdi Square, walking up Amsterdam. It felt strange to be in the neighborhood so early in the morning on a Saturday. I now associated this stretch of streets with Dr. Schwartz, since the only time I was ever here was when I was either going to or coming from seeing him. But instead of walking another block to Seventy-fourth Street, I turned down Seventy-third, heading for Jeff’s apartment in the brownstone.
As I walked down the street, I spotted the doorman from the Wakefield standing on the sidewalk talking to the mailman. Our eyes met and he nodded. I quickly looked away, jumping up the steps of the brownstone two at a time. The lock didn’t give me any trouble and in just a few seconds I was inside. I turned around and peered through the glass of the brownstone’s outer doors. Across the street, the doorman looked very confused.
When I entered Jeff’s apartment, I was hit with a very strong sense of déjà vu. It felt incredibly familiar, and yet I’d never been there. As I walked through the rooms, I couldn’t get over how strange and yet not-strange it felt.
This was all my stuff. These were all things that I currently owned and had back in Montclair. Well, half of it was. In the living room was the entertainment system that I had bought when Grainne and I first moved to Hoboken. Some of the furniture in the bedroom were pieces that I’d also bought back when we moved from New York to New Jersey (we’d practically doubled our square footage by leaving Manhattan, and needed lots of furniture to help fill the space). But some things I didn’t recognize. The bed and couch I’d never seen before. They seemed new, same with a table and chairs that sat between the small living room and the tiny kitchen. Looking over the bookshelves, I recognized all of the titles. Same with the CDs. Beside the bed there was a stack of books that didn’t match anything I had at home in Montclair, but they were all titles that I knew about. I’d read about them in the Times, or in The New Yorker, and had meant to buy them. But in the past year, due to Zachery, I hadn’t read much. For a second I was jealous of this other Jeff; he probably had time for everything.
I sat down on the couch, looking over the room. I figured what had happened was that, in the divorce, Jeff had taken the furniture from the extra room and the entertainment center and TV and stereo equipment from the living room, and that was it. The couch had been Grainne’s—she owned it when we first met in 2003—and even though we’d bought the bed together, Jeff must have let Grainne keep it.
It was a nice apartment, I had to admit. And it was scary because it’s just what I would have chosen if I had to go out and look for a new place. Brownstone, Manhattan, Upper West Side. Perfect. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
Getting up, I looked through the window and saw the doorman still standing on the sidewalk with the mailman. Neither of them seemed in a hurry. Their voices were loud and I could hear them, muffled through the glass. I then noticed the room across the street, the studio apartment in the Wakefield, the one I had briefly visited last week. I could see, perched on the windowsill, the opera glasses sitting atop a book.
It was just a few days ago that I’d seen yet another Jeff Gomez killed, hit by a car on the corner near my office. And it was just two weeks before that I met those other versions of myself. It felt like almost too much to take. Plus, with Grainne having been gone, I was out of sorts and mixed up. It was all combining into a feeling of confusion and lethargy. I went into Jeff’s room, feeling like Goldilocks, and collapsed onto his bed for a nap.
I woke up a few hours later. Sunlight was streaming in through the open window. It took me a few seconds to realize where I was. At first I thought it was a dream and tried to shake it off. But then it all came back to me. I shrugged and got up, stretched and—on my way to the bathroom—saw a pair of running shoes on the floor. It had been chilly earlier, but it wasn’t really cold. With a long-sleeve shirt, I’d be okay. I decided to go for a run.
I rummaged around in Jeff’s drawers, quickly finding some running shorts, socks, and a heather gray long-sleeve T-shirt. I got dressed, took a swig of water, and headed downstairs.
Across the street the doorman was nowhere to be seen, so I scrambled down the steps. Halfway down the block I forgot about the Wakefield and the doorman and the brownstone. I slipped into my old routine from when I lived in Manhattan years ago. I stopped to stretch a few times, using the first step of a townhouse to loosen my hamstrings. As I walked I could see, through the traffic a block away going by in both directions, the trees of Central Park swaying in the cool breeze. I turned my head in circles and swung my arms from side to side. At the end of Seventy-third Street I saw someone trying to parallel park an SUV. Across the street, another car was trying to do the same exact thing.
I did more stretches against a curb not far from the Bethesda Fountain and just a few yards from where a jazz trio was playing. After a few minutes of stretching, I felt loosened up and started running, heading south in a counterclockwise loop.
It had been a long time since I’d jogged anywhere, let alone Central Park. It took my body a little while to get used to the sensation. At first my legs felt heavy, and the muscles were flabby and out of shape. It wasn’t until I reached the southwest corner of the park, near Columbus Circle, that I found my stride.
By the time I was halfway through the loop I was totally back in the old routine. Everything was coming back to me: which landmarks stood for what measurement, and how fast I had to be going in order to get a respectable time. I sank so deep into my old routine that, for a few minutes, I forgot who I was. Zachery seemed like an illusion, Grainne felt very far away. At first, being in Jeff’s apartment had felt like a business trip. I was simply passing through and would one day return to my former life. But it was beginning to feel different. I wondered, If I stayed here, would I turn into that other Jeff? How easy would it be to forget?
I finished the run, covered in sweat and aching but otherwise fine. Tomorrow morning my legs would no doubt be sore, but at that moment they actually felt lighter than when I began. My watch was still flashing twelve o’clock so I didn’t know my time for running the lap, but I knew that I was rusty and that it had taken longer than it used to.
When I got back to the apartment, I poured myself a glass of water, took off the soggy T-shirt, and sat on one of chairs tucked into the small table sandwiched between the living room and kitchen. I turned on the TV and found a Yankees game. They were playing Tampa Bay and were losing. As I drank the water and sat in Jeff’s running shorts, with a T-shirt around my neck and the cool air on my chest from the open window, I thought back to my life before Grainne. This was exactly how it used to be. On Saturday I’d start watching a Yankees game, go out for a run, and come back to see how they were doing. If they were winning I kept watching and if they were losing I watched something else. I’d spent years that way, living that life. And I think I was happy. But that was almost a decade ago. I’d grown since then, but this Jeff had shrunk.
Once the game was over I turned off the TV, drank the last of the water, and then placed the glass on the table. For a few minutes I just sat there. There was silence in the room. Silence like I hadn’t heard in years. No wife asking me to do chores, no baby needing changing or a bath. No nothing. I finally got up, took off the shorts, shoes, socks, and climbed into the shower.
In the dresser—identical to one I had in a room of our house in Montclair—I found a pair of jeans I didn’t recognize. They were expensive-looking Levi’s, the kind that—for no apparent reason—cost $200. I also fished out of the drawer an Izod polo, put it on, and headed back into the living room.
I turned on the stereo, hitting shuffle on the iPod that was hooked up to it. I went into the kitchen and found my favorite brand of beer in the fridge. I cracked it open, pouring it slowly—and at an angle—into a fluted glass, and then went back into the living room.
I sat down at Jeff’s desk in the corner, flipping up the lid to his silver laptop (the same model I had in the study in Montclair). I was prompted for a password but knew it. After the machine whirred back to life, I could see that there were a number of windows and documents already open. One file seemed to be the PowerPoint report that I’d also been working on, the competitive website analysis. I glanced through the slides, seeing if this Jeff had come up with anything I’d missed. He hadn’t, but a few things were worded differently and some of the slides were in a different order.
There was also a Word document open that said at the top, Notes for a new introduction to the paperback edition of Print is Dead. But this was nothing more than a list of topics and subjects Jeff wanted to cover in the essay. Many of the words were misspelled, with crinkly red lines underneath them. I didn’t see any trace of the essay itself. It seemed to be very much the initial brainstorming session. This made me grin because I’d already made substantial progress on my version of the essay. Slacker, I thought.
His email program was also open, in addition to a Web browser; a number of windows automatically updated. In one of the windows, the home page of The New York Times refreshed itself. Other windows held Pitchfork, The Huffington Post, and Salon. One of the windows had a series of faces in it, women’s faces. It was the dating website, Match. I could believe this. It’s the way I’d met Grainne all those years ago. Always shy, and never one to approach a woman in a bar, Internet dating seemed like the way to go.
As I looked over the faces, I noticed that their ages all seemed to be between 32-34. I guessed that Jeff was hoping to meet someone young so that he could completely start over. Get married and have a family. Now he wants to have a child, I thought. Too bad he didn’t want that before.
For a few minutes—four songs and half a beer—I scrolled through the various pages on Match, clicking on the occasional profile and imagining what it would be like to be single again. To me these were just pictures, but for Jeff they were possibilities. This made me both sad and jealous. Sad because Jeff had to start again from scratch. Jealous because Jeff was able to start again from scratch.
It’s probably what I would do if my marriage fell apart. Hell, I bet that Grainne’s probably also…
If this Jeff was single, having divorced Grainne and jumped back into the dating scene, then it stood to reason that there was another version of Grainne out there, newly single and doing the exact same thing.
I clicked on Start New Search, customizing it so I would only see thirty-nine year-old divorced women who lived in the New York area. There were 148 women who matched my criteria. On the third page, I saw her. At first I almost clicked onto another page without noticing. Her face was too familiar for me to recognize. I saw it everyday, so seeing it on the laptop didn’t ring any bells. Feeling a little bit queasy, I clicked on her profile.
Her screen name was Ginnie1970. I couldn’t remember what her screen name had been all those years ago when we first met, but I don’t think it had been that. I didn’t recognize her profile photo. It must have been new. In the picture she was all glammed up, wearing a black dress and makeup. Her hair also looked like it’d been recently styled. She looked gorgeous, not to mention much thinner (the fact that she hadn’t recently had a child of course helped). Under the heading About me and who I’m looking for, Grainne had written the usual kind of thing. She loved long walks on the beach, to ski, to travel. She was looking for a man who “knows who he is” and “knows how to treat a lady.” The books she listed as having “just read” were books that I’d seen various women reading on trains and subways.
In addition to her main photo, she’d uploaded a number of candid shots. I could see thumbnails of them on the left of the screen. Half of them were from before she met me; Grainne posing at exotic locales around the world. Here’s me in front of the Sphinx. Here’s me in front of the Eiffel Tower. There were also a few photos of Grainne that I had taken. Lounging on the green grass in Central Park when we lived on Seventy-seventh Street just a few blocks from where I was right now. A shot of her on the rooftop balcony of my dad’s apartment in San Francisco, Grainne looking beautiful in a lavender dress, Coit Tower visible in the background. Her other photos had had me in them at one point, but I had since been clumsily removed. In a few of them you could see the sleeve of my blazer or even my arm behind her neck. In each of these photos Grainne looked happy. I was the one who was creating that happiness, at least to some degree. That smile was caused by me. I took a sip of the beer and thought, Or who knows? Maybe I had nothing to do with anything. I thought back to that line I’d written a few weeks ago: I was a teenager when I first discovered the word solipsism.
I clicked back to the main page of her profile and just stared at it with tears in my eyes. This is what men all around the city could be looking at. My wife was available again. The potential nightmare you live with when you’re married—that someone else will sleep with your spouse—could come true in a click. And yet, I had to tell myself, this wasn’t my wife. She was Jeff’s ex-wife. And if he had seen fit to leave her, then she had the right to do whatever she wanted.
Above her photo in red it said Online now! I took another sip of the beer and was about to click an icon on the right side of the page that said Email her when the phone rang. At first I wasn’t going to answer it, but then I thought maybe it was one of the other Jeffs. Maybe the one who was going to Montclair had got lost, or maybe he had found the house all right but something was wrong with Grainne or Zachery. I picked up the phone, expecting the next voice to be my own.
It was a female.
“Uh—yes.” I felt like a fraud. The answer was technically correct, but I don’t think I was the Jeff she was looking for.
“Can I,” she began, but then stopped. She seemed upset. Her voice was shaking (it was possible she always sounded like that, but I doubted it). “Can I…come over?”
“I know we didn’t have plans tonight but…something happened and…I just really want to see you.”
It was a yes or no question, but—not knowing who this person was—I didn’t know what either answer could entail. Not wanting to screw anything up for Jeff, I said slowly, “Sure.”
“Great, thanks.” She already sounded better. “I really appreciate it. Say, an hour?”
“Sure,” I said, and then repeated. “An hour.”
“See you soon.”
“Okay, but wait.” I felt I had to ask. “Who is this?”
She laughed, I guess thinking the question was a joke.
“It’s Leah, silly.”
I spent the next hour cleaning up the apartment, although I wasn’t sure why. What if she was just a co-worker checking up on a project, or a friend of a friend who had to return an item borrowed from Jeff, like a book or a CD? If that were the case, I’d feel like a fool for straightening up the living room, doing the dishes, and picking up the dirty clothes from the floor. As the songs from Jeff’s iPod blared through the apartment as I was cleaning, it made me think of years ago when I would get ready for dates on a Saturday night.
As I was looking underneath the kitchen sink for some Windex, I found a bag of groceries in a brown paper sack. Inside the bag was a clove of garlic, a small bottle of vinegar, four black votive candles, two larger black candles, one red votive candle, and an assortment of porcelain cups and saucers (four of each). There was also a metal bowl about the size of a fist; it smelled sweetly of incense and had numerous burn marks. Tucked into one of the cups was a piece of paper that I pulled out and unfolded. At the top of the paper was a strange looking seal. It looked like a pair of wings floating above a whirlpool, surrounded on three sides with smaller whirlpools. Around the edge were four words written in an alphabet I couldn’t recognize let alone read. The words looked sort of Cyrillic or Arabic and yet were neither. At the bottom of the page the following was printed in an ornate script:
To the south, west, north and east
By all my magic do I release
That which my will once did yearn,
What I created here I now return
Just as I was going to pull out the items and set them on the counter, trying to get a sense of whether there was any connection between the candles, dishes, and the piece of paper, the buzzer rang. When it did, I jumped. The paper in my hand fell to the floor. The buzzer rang again. I pressed Talk on the intercom and said, “Hello?” I then pressed Listen. A scratchy voice came through the small speaker. “Jeff, hey, it’s Leah. Let me up?” Pressing the Door button, I could faintly hear the bzzzt of the lock three flights down.
I turned to the apartment and gave it a quick look. Everything seemed fine. The iPod was playing a soft song and outside the sun was setting. Seventy-third Street was enveloped in pink shadows. I could see, briefly, through to the apartment across the street, the fourth floor studio in the Wakefield where the other Jeff had been bivouacked for the past two weeks. In the hallway I heard the echo of what I assumed was a woman’s high heels against the wooden staircase, but across the street I thought I saw something else: the image of a man who looked like me, an echo of myself. The head of the silhouette seemed to be moving, nodding as if in approval.
The noises from the hallway were getting louder. Whoever she was, she was going to be at Jeff’s door in a matter of seconds. The sounds then abruptly stopped. Through the door I could smell perfume. The doorbell rang, but then a voice said in a comical tone, “Knock knock.”
In my nervousness, I wrung my hands together. When I did this, I felt my wedding ring dig into my flesh. Shit. Jeff isn’t married. As fast as I could, I pulled the ring from my left hand and tossed it onto the dresser. It made a slight metallic clink as it landed.
I opened the door and saw a young, attractive woman standing in the hallway. When the girl came in, I didn’t know how to look at her. Who was she? More importantly, who was she to Jeff? She was nicely dressed, wearing brown open-toed high heel shoes, skinny blue jeans, and a floral printed tunic under a lime-green cashmere cardigan that had jade-colored buttons at the wrists. She was trying to impress someone, but who? I couldn’t be sure the clothes she was wearing were for me. Maybe she had a boyfriend and I was merely a confidant. She was there to tell me all about him. But something—and I swear it wasn’t vanity (at least I don’t think it was)—told me that that wasn’t the case. This wasn’t a disinterested co-worker here to tell me about her troubles. This wasn’t a neighbor looking to borrow a cup of sugar or a corkscrew or a book. She was here for me, to see me, to fuck me. I gulped.
“Hey,” she said, giving me nothing to go on.
“Hey,” I said back.
For a second we circled each other like teenagers in a fight where neither wants to throw the first punch. Finally she leaned in and kissed me on the lips. In my mind I definitively crossed a few entries off the list of who she might be: neighbor, co-worker, friend-of-a-friend. I must have looked strange as she leaned back from the kiss because she asked, “Jeff, are you all right?”
I could still feel her lips on mine. They were wet and catching the breeze. They almost stung. Had I done something wrong? Grainne, I felt, was in another world. But somehow this would ripple back to her and she’d know.
“Yeah, fine—fine,” I said, a bit too fast. I tried not to get flustered but, all of the sudden, it felt very hot in the room. “So, uh, how are you?’
She entered the living room and sat down on the couch, tossing a huge purple handbag to the floor as she did so.
“I’m fine except I’m pissed at Cassandra and Blake for bailing on me tonight. We were supposed to go to a party in the Village but both think they’re coming down with something. I mean, how convenient right?”
I just stood there. None of these names sounded familiar. All I could do was nod.
“They both had a flu shot this week, so they’re blaming it on that. But I think it’s just bullshit.”
“Yeah, bullshit,” I said, mechanically.
Then she looked at me a grinned.
“So that’s when I thought I’d call you. I hope you don’t mind. I know how much you like your privacy.” The way she said the word conveyed that either I actually didn’t enjoy my privacy or else I enjoyed it too much. Knowing who I used to be, I figured it was the latter and not the former.
“No, it’s not—it’s not a problem at all.”
She smiled and said, “Good, I’m glad. So, can I get a drink?”
“Yeah—yeah, sure.” I was happy to be given a task to do. “What would you like?”
“The usual,” she said. Thankfully, a second later she followed up with, “Vodka and tonic.”
I retreated into the kitchen to make the drinks. I didn’t know where anything was, but it was a small kitchen—with only a few cabinets and drawers—so it didn’t take long to find everything. I even discovered a couple of limes in the fridge and so, in a couple of minutes, I had two drinks. I carried them out to the living room and handed one to…what was her name again? Oh yeah, Leah.
“Here you go,” I said.
She took the drink and then raised it to her lips for a sip.
“Thanks,” she said, following this quickly with, “cheers.”
I sat down next to her, which felt odd.
We sipped our drinks in silence, the only noise being the traffic on Seventy-third Street and The Knife coming out of the stereo speakers. The moment we believe that we have never met. Another kind of love, it’s easy to forget.
“So,” I said. “Cassandra and Blake.”
“Ugh,” Leah sighed after she took another sip of her drink. “Forget about them. ”
Those names, beside her own, were all that I knew about her so I was hesitant to give them up as a topic of conversation. In the silence that followed I took a deep sip of my own drink. I hadn’t mixed it well and swallowed almost nothing but vodka.
“How’s work?” she finally asked. “Did you have a good week?”
This was a relief since Jeff and I had the same job, so anything that I described would presumably be something she knew about. I told her about some of the projects I was working on and my co-workers and boss. Throughout it all she nodded and seemed interested. After half an hour, we both needed a refill on our drinks.
I was in the kitchen pouring the Ketel One when I finally made the connection. The Facebook updates. Leah. The name that got me into trouble last week with Grainne. This is her. She must be Jeff’s girlfriend, or at least a girl that he was seeing. But why hadn’t he mentioned her? I guessed since they hadn’t had plans for tonight, it hadn’t seemed important. I wasn’t supposed to have met her, so Jeff didn’t feel the need to bring it up.
I finished pouring the vodka and put it back in the freezer. Then I fished out the tonic water from the fridge. As I was mixing the drinks, I felt that there was something else. I’d had a nagging feeling about Leah since she entered the apartment a little less than an hour ago. I felt like I knew her the second I saw her, but had chalked that up to the fact that Jeff knew her and that, therefore, so did I on some instinctual level.
The guy from You’re Familiar, Luther Blissett, had talked about one of the theories being that every conceivable world was merely laid on top of the other. The minor differences between them blended together. Because of this, some of Jeff’s knowledge of this girl had seeped through to me. But I began to sense that it was even deeper than that. Then it hit me. I had met Leah before, nearly a decade ago. I met her before the split occurred, the three Jeffs going in their separate directions. The memory I had of her from so long ago was mine.
It had been at a party for the website Slate, held at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. She was a publicist at Holt back then and I was just getting started in publishing, working as an assistant at St. Martin’s Press. It was January and cold out. It must have been 1999, back when the Internet bubble was at its biggest. I didn’t know many people at the party and so was grateful when a mutual friend introduced me to Leah. I had a crush on her from the second we met and followed her around for most of the night. As the party began clearing out around ten, I got her email address as we stood in a long line to get our coats. She left with some co-workers and I headed downtown to meet a friend at Chumley’s. When I got there, I found my friend with a bunch of his friends from out of town in a booth in the sort of back room, taking up an entire wall. I had a number of beers and was excited about Leah.
I followed up with her the next week; she never got back to me. I emailed her a few more times before finally giving up. Years went by, I dated other people, and then I met Grainne. We got married, had a kid, and moved to Montclair. At least, that’s what happened to me. In this world, Jeff’s marriage didn’t work out and he found himself suddenly single. A few months after moving to Manhattan he probably ran into Leah as haphazardly as he had the first time, their orbits overlapping every nine or ten years. It hadn’t been a success that first time, but they were different people then. Who knows what had changed in her world between 1999 and 2009? But whatever it was, it made her give Jeff another chance.
I entered the living room and gave Leah her drink.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of the giant purple bag. “Want one?”
I used to smoke but had to give it up when Grainne had Zachery. I was never a heavy smoker, so it wasn’t too big of a deal. From time to time I missed it, but otherwise it wasn’t an issue.
“Oh, sure,” I said. As she lit it for me, which I thought was pretty sexy, I noticed the various ashtrays placed around the room. I hadn’t noticed them before now. The air in the apartment also held a stale smell of cigarette smoke, but I’d attributed that to a neighbor or the street. All of Manhattan, at times, smells like an ashtray.
The first puff of smoke felt heavy and alien in my lungs. I had to stifle a cough, my body wanting to immediately expel what I’d just inhaled. But by the fourth puff I was enjoying the taste and the experience of smoking again. I didn’t draw the breaths as deeply into my lungs as I used to, but I was indeed inhaling. In no time the smoke from our two cigarettes filled the room.
“Let’s go out.” Leah said this quickly, as if the idea had just come to her.
I tried to match her with a fast reaction of my own, but stalled. All I could muster was, “What?”
“I’m bored. Let’s go out.”
“But where?” I said.
She rolled her eyes and responded, “Anywhere.”
I took a sip of my drink and then a puff from the cigarette. I remembered this feeling. Saturday night; early. Anything could happen. The feeling tingled inside of me even though it’d been years since I felt it. The cigarettes and the vodka had also given me a light buzz.
“Sure,” I said, feeling a rush as the word exited my mouth.
We stepped down the stairs of the brownstone, Leah with her left arm curled around my right arm. A cold breeze blew through the trees along Seventy-third Street; I was glad I’d borrowed a cotton scarf and blazer from Jeff’s closet. It felt like fall had arrived, and it was hard to imagine that just a couple of hours ago it had been sunny and I’d gone for a run in the park. We stopped at the sidewalk and I pointed east and west.
“Columbus or Amsterdam?” I asked.
“Your choice,” she said.
I decided on Columbus and started walking in that direction.
We passed a couple of bars that seemed filled with either frat boys or bankers (neither of us could agree on which was more annoying), and finally we ran across a wine bar on the corner of Seventy-eighth Street. It was a long, dark space and it seemed perfect. Leah and I found a table near the back; we hoisted ourselves onto red velvet-covered barstools. When we finally got the attention of the waitress, I ordered a bottle of Vernaccia and felt momentarily guilty since I only knew of that wine since it was one of Grainne’s favorites. After a glass of wine we ordered some food—pasta for me, just a salad for Leah—and as we ate the bar continued to fill up. A few of the frat boys and bankers who couldn’t get into Prohibition or Jackson Hole up the street joined us, but we didn’t let that ruin our little oasis. The food was good and so was the music; in between Italian disco I picked out “What a Fool Believes” and “I Can’t Go For That.” A few times Leah and I slipped out to the sidewalk to smoke a cigarette, catching the eye of the waitress to let her know we weren’t trying to slip out on the check. By the fifth cigarette of the night, and the fourth drink, it had all come back to me who to be.
On the sidewalk, as we flung our burned-out cigarettes into the street, people all around us were getting into cabs. Leaving this bar for another bar, or taking a taxi from the Upper West Side to any one of Manhattan’s numerous neighborhoods. I could see above the bar windows that were lit up, apartments on the other side. The windows were open, drapes blowing in the cool breeze of the autumn everyone had been dying for. Noise was everywhere. I smiled at Leah and she smiled at me. I’d missed this energy. In Montclair you have peace and quiet, but you don’t have this.
We went back in and found our seats. From a huge clock over the bar I could see that it was nearly midnight. Not terribly late, but Grainne and I were always in bed at ten, worn out from another day of running after and caring for Zachery. And yet, as I looked around the bar, no one seemed tired. The bar kept filling up instead of thinning out. I wondered, Who are these people?
After drinking the last of the wine, we ordered dessert and glasses of tawny port to go along with it. While we were finishing off the tiramisu, Leah telling me about a problem at her office (she still worked in publishing, but for a different company; we knew lots of the same people), I thought back to that first night we met, back in 1999. I couldn’t help but think what my life would have been like if Leah had returned those emails I wrote to her a week after the party. Would she and I have gotten together and, if so, would we have stayed together? Since she’s dating Jeff there must be some kind of chemistry between us. But did that mean there had been chemistry a decade ago, and we just didn’t explore it? Or did our chemistry need the ensuing ten years to ripen and ferment?
It was crazy to think how different everything would have been if, instead of dating now, we’d dated then. We could have moved in with each other in 2000, held each other as the towers came down on 9/11 a year later. By 2002 we’d be having our first child and, in 2003—when I was just meeting Grainne—Leah and I would be celebrating the one-year birthday of our first child. Maybe it would have been a girl; maybe we would have named her after my maternal grandmother: June. It was useless to try and guess or determine which life was better. They were each what they were. If I believed that load of crap that Luther had told me last week at the bar, there was in fact a world out there where Leah and I had gotten together and were still together now. I closed my eyes and tried to feel it. But all I felt was drunk.
We finished the last of our port and by then the bar was loud and crowded. I paid the bill and we walked back to the brownstone, somewhat wobbly after all the wine and drinks beforehand. When we got to the steps I sort of paused, thinking that she was going to go her way and I was going to go mine. But she took my stopping to mean that I was a gentleman, that I was letting her walk up the steps to the brownstone first. She leapt up the stairs and then waited for me at the top. I walked up the steps slowly, opening the door just as slowly. Leah entered the building and then headed up the stairs to the third floor. I guessed that it was a given she was going to spend the night.
We got inside the apartment. Leah slipped into the bathroom and I froze, standing in the middle of the living room. Again, out of instinct—the same way that I’d earlier joined my glass to Leah’s for a toast even though I wasn’t sure what it was exactly that was being toasted—I turned on the iPod. I then lit some candles and lit a cigarette from a pack sitting beside one of the ashtrays. When Leah came out of the bathroom, I got up since I also had to use it. As I passed her near the kitchen, she stopped and pulled me against her.
I didn’t know how to hold her. She was taller than Grainne and for years—approaching a decade—my lips and arms and body had been joined only to Grainne’s lips and arms and body. When we were together, we didn’t just embrace; we interlocked, like two puzzle pieces. It was a cliché metaphor except it wasn’t a metaphor. So when Leah came in for a kiss, I responded by tilting my head at a certain angle based on Grainne’s height and my years of training. Leah, being taller, threw everything off. Instead of kissing her lips, at first I kissed her chin.
“Sorry,” I said, after. “My timing was off.”
She laughed and said, “That’s all right. I’ve been known to be off with my timing, too.”
I wondered if that was a reference to years before, when we met but never went anywhere. Had she been thinking the same things that I was, thinking What if? and trying to figure out what the previous decade would have been like if only she’d written back to me? If only she’d given us a chance?
“So then,” she said, “try again.”
I leaned in again, forcing my body to forget about Grainne. It worked. I met Leah’s mouth with my own and, after a few seconds, her lips separated and I felt her tongue. Her arms moved across my back so I did the same thing. Under her shirt I could feel her bra. When the kiss was over, Leah said, “Better.”
She returned to the couch and after I came out of the bathroom I mixed two more drinks. We talked for another hour until finally, just as the candles were dying, Leah said, “Come on, let’s go to bed.”
She led me to the bedroom. I watched her undress, feeling guilty as she slipped out of her jeans and left them in a heap on the floor. She peeled back the sheets and climbed in. I did the same, undressing as fast as I could. She crawled over to my side of the bed and put her arm around my chest. Neither of us made a move to have sex. I was curious, but grateful. After listening to the traffic on Seventy-third Street for ten minutes—the cars going by sounding almost like waves—I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
As I was drifting away, I noticed Leah get out of bed. She left the bedroom and I saw a light go on in the hallway. At first I thought maybe she was slipping out, leaving me to wake up in the morning by myself. But then I thought something else.
She’s going to put in her diaphragm. Or else get some condoms.
She came back a minute later with the brown paper bag I’d found in the kitchen earlier in the day. She placed it on the dresser and fished out of it the candles and the metal bowl. After doing this, she paused. She’d noticed something on the dresser. She picked it up and examined it; my wedding ring in her hand caught the moonlight coming in from Seventy-third Street. She returned the ring to the dresser and then lit the candles, as well as the incense. She placed the candles around the room, including on the floor and the windowsill. The metal bowl she put in the center of the dresser. Setting the mood, I thought. But she didn’t crawl back in bed; something about her demeanor suggested sinister rather than sexy. Instead she crouched on the floor, producing the piece of paper that I had read after my run. Her face looked strange in the flickering candlelight, and I got a chill. She began to rhythmically recite the words from the paper, almost chanting. Leah said, “By the lady—may moonlight join with flame, and undo by magic all that I made.”
“What?” I asked, barely awake.
“Nothing,” she whispered, turning and leaning in to kiss me softly on the lips. “Go to sleep.”