Tuesday
Nov032015

Between You and Me

By Scott Nadelson


Engine Books
November 2015
978-1938126338


 

If the woman weren't blocking his way, he doubted he would have noticed her legs. Given an open path he would have bolted past without a glance. As it was, his eyes were fixed on them, in black nylons, dark over her calves, sheer where they stretched over the first flare of her thighs, more so, he imagined, the higher they rose under her skirt. She walked the way models did down a runway, heel to toe, but she did so lazily, with no urgency, weaving gently through the crowded terminal, unaware, it seemed, of people streaming past in either direction. She wasn't as tall as a model, or as thin, and when he allowed his eyes to rise above her waist, he saw that her posture was slouched, her neck squat, brown hair dull despite a fashionable cut, sheared high in back and molded into points on either cheek. Still, her face in profile had a casual austerity he found appealing, her jawline prominent, chin protruding just slightly past her lips, which were full and gently parted. Her nose, slightly upturned, he could live with.

He'd fallen in behind her on the way out of the plane, which meant either she'd pushed up to the front as soon as they'd landed or she, too, had been in first class, though he hadn't noticed her during the flight. He'd slept through much of it, rising out of a panicked dream an hour before arriving, imagining he'd brought the wrong contracts, or that he hadn't drafted them all. Of course he had drafted them—he'd looked them over a dozen times—but still he pulled his attaché case from beneath his seat and scanned them again as the plane descended over the Alps. But still the panic lingered as the plane touched down and followed a circuitous route to the gate, and by the time the doors opened he was in a hurry to get off, though he had nowhere to be for hours. The car would wait for him as long as it took to get his bag, and the hotel wouldn't have his room ready until afternoon. He'd have all morning to stroll the banks of the river or sit in the pews of the Fraumünster and study the Chagall windows. But even knowing all this, he couldn't keep himself from standing as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off, draping his jacket over a shoulder and sliding into the aisle before the man across from him—with a lumpy, cretinous forehead—could step in front.

He'd intended to pass the woman in the gangway, and then again when they stepped into the terminal, but every time he tried she swayed in the direction he was moving, and to get around her he would have had to bump her out of his way. She carried an overstuffed purse, which stuck out a good ten inches from her shoulder, and whenever her body wasn't in his path, the purse was. A familiar irritation rose up in him, along with the feeling of being ignored when he was in plain sight, which in turn made him think of Cynthia in the bedroom as he'd packed his suitcase. He'd waited for her to acknowledge the eyes he was making at her, meant to convey his desire and mild frustration, to let her know what he looked forward to when he came home. But she only smiled a distracted smile, half-turning to hear something Kyle was shouting from the kitchen, and when she turned back, she said, "Don't forget Joy's birthday's the day after you get back. Pick up something nice. Not another watch. Or one of those army knives." In her expression, there was no acknowledgment that he'd be gone from their bed for the next five nights, that they wouldn't make love in all that time. In fact, they hadn't made love for far more than five nights already, and when they last had, Cynthia had seemed utterly surprised to find Paul nuzzling her neck, his fingers fidgeting at the end of her nightgown. Afterward she said, "We should do that more often," and he'd agreed, though every night for the next week she was asleep before he'd finished brushing his teeth.

Now, slowed by the woman's meandering, the heavy bag pulling her to the side, he eased his pace. And slowed himself he could study her legs, the sight of them slipping across each other calming his anxiety. He did his best to keep from imagining them freed from skirt and nylons, wrapped around him or partially draped with sheets, fabric and skin alternately catching light from half-drawn shades. And because he tried not to picture it, he didn't hold it against himself when the images came unbidden. He was groggy enough to forget momentarily what he was doing here, or to make himself believe he'd forgotten, instead recalling the exhilaration of being single and let loose in a foreign country, open to whatever adventures might present themselves. What did it matter that none ever had? His palm was suddenly slick on the handle of his attaché case, and he had to switch it to the other hand. The woman turned her head again, and again he caught her profile, stately and sensual, with a hint of prurience he associated particularly with Europeans.

His suitcase came off the carousel first, but he lingered until the woman got hers. Now, weighed down on both sides, she walked even slower, her steps less certain. He followed her through immigration, where she took her time digging through her crowded purse to find her passport. She hadn't acknowledged him directly yet, but at each stop she showed her profile again, and rather than stare at her he gazed into the distance, smiling dreamily, as if amused by some private thought.

When they were clear of customs he had a chance to pass her again, this time in a wide enough spot that she would have had to dive in front of him to keep him from getting past. But he didn't try. Before them rose an enormous glass wall, the gray sky brilliant, glittering, behind it, a suggestion of mountain peaks jutting through the tops of clouds. For a moment he so lost himself in trying to distinguish them that he didn't notice the woman had stopped in front of him. He pulled up just before kicking over her suitcase, one of his feet ending up tucked under its edge. She'd turned all the way around, facing him directly, and from straight on her face was narrower than he would have guessed, a sunken quality to her cheeks that made her eyes seem too large for their sockets, slightly bulging.

"You're still following me?" She did have an accent, but not the one he'd imagined. It was husky, nasal, exasperated, pure north Jersey. They might have been neighbors. She waved an arm across her body, sweeping him away. "Go already! Go!"

He had to take a step backward to extract himself from her suitcase and then skirted her in a broad arc, fighting an urge to glance behind, to apologize, to get one last glimpse of her legs. A few yards away a black-clad driver stared ahead somberly, holding up a sign: HABERMANN. Paul had another urge, to keep walking, to pretend he wasn't the one being summoned, to step out into the mostly strange city and make his way somewhere he'd never been. But without any acknowledgment on his part, the driver lowered the sign and reached for his bag. "It's spelled with one n," Paul said, but either the driver didn't hear him or didn't understand.

"Velcome to Zurich," he said, and started walking away with the suitcase. Paul had to jog to catch up. When they were outside he saw that what he'd mistaken for mountains were clouds piled on top of clouds.

 

He saw the woman a second time two days later, in the Flemish room of the Kunsthaus. By then he was happy to be alone; he was tired of his hosts' chilly politeness, their strained efforts at small talk, their obligatory gestures of revelry, which meant keeping him out late and sending him back to his hotel room with a stomach engorged with heavy food and a head reeling from strong beer. This afternoon, one of them had offered to take him on a boat ride up the lake, but Paul knew him too well to accept. Johann Becker couldn't resist working even when he was supposed to be relaxing, and he'd push ahead with negotiations while Paul was trying to clear his head, staring down at the water and listening to the rumble of the boat's engine. Plus Johann stood too close when he was talking, and his breath was sour. So instead Paul begged off, claiming to need the time to find a birthday present for Joy.

He'd been to the museum before, several times, and took in the paintings with cursory glances, his eye grazing a van Dyke virgin and child, a Snyders fruit bowl, a Brueghel woodland, hardly noticing more than a blur of color before moving on. The woman came in after him, this time wearing a suit with slacks, and without her legs to look at, Paul didn't know what he'd seen in her. She was in her mid-thirties, he guessed, with tired eyes and sallow skin, walking stiffly, with none of Cynthia's casual, hip-swinging charm. He pretended not to recognize her, though she gave him what looked like a rigid, embarrassed smile from across the long gallery. He studied the leaves of Brueghel's trees, hands behind his back, and listened to her heels clicking across the wooden floor, coming closer and then retreating. She'd veered off to a side gallery, and Paul wondered what would happen if he followed her again, whether she'd let him pass this time or turn and scold him, staring him down until he slinked away.

He made his way to the Impressionist gallery, where a blur of colors was all he was supposed to take in. Monet's water lilies were hardly more distinct than the pulses of light on the backs of his eyelids when he rubbed them with the heel of his hand. When he opened them, there was the woman, not three feet from him, looking at the same painting, arms crossed over her chest. The sculpted point of hair on her cheek seemed even sharper today, her face in profile more severe, and again Paul thought hers was a European look, a quality of wan stateliness that went deeper than haircut or pallor, that charged the air around her with a low-frequency erotic buzz. He caught a hint of her perfume, and that kept him from moving away, though by now he'd looked at the painting all he needed to and more.

"They don't look much like lilies to me," the woman said, and stretched out an arm not in the direction of the painting but toward Paul, her extended fingers just shy of brushing his arm. Once again he was startled by the accent, expecting it to have somehow corrected itself, to have taken on the appropriate German inflections. But it was still an American voice, still nasal, though gentler than in the airport, chummy. "More like fungus," she said. "Or cheese mold."

"He made a cheese mold series, too," Paul said. "It's not as well known."

She didn't laugh as he thought she would, but she did slide a step closer, and this time when she reached out her hand fell briefly on his shoulder. "I don't know shit about art," she said. "But at the hotel they told me to come see the Jacko statues, or whatever."

Since his first visit to the museum, more than a decade ago, he'd avoided the Giacometti galleries, which had so depressed him the one time he'd walked through that he'd gone straight back to his room and called his mother. He wanted to tell her how lonely he was, how much he hated the food, how frustrating he found it that his career required him to smile and nod at people whose speech sounded like truculent gibberish. But before he could say a word, his mother started right in complaining about his father—did Paul know how crazy it made her to live with a man who wore the same socks three days running?—and when he finally managed to tell her he was calling from overseas, she gave a shriek, asked if he was in the hospital or in jail, then scolded him for wasting his employers' money before hanging up. When he came home he found his apartment unbearably drab, signs of aggressive decay everywhere he looked—scuff marks near the front door, built-up grime along the baseboards, loose caulk around the bathroom fan—and that week he hired a painter to redo the entire interior.

Still, he agreed to take the woman to the galleries now, letting her pass first through a doorway that was wide enough to accommodate both of them and then falling in a step behind. Even without skirt and nylons her legs caught his attention, her odd walk, heel to toe, and the way it shaped and re-shaped her small backside. They passed Cézannes and Gaugins without stopping to glance at them, and it seemed the woman wasn't aware there might be something to glance at, so straight did her head remain above her sloping shoulders, offering not even a hint of profile now. They descended a set of stairs, and the sound of her heels was muffled by the cries of children rising from below, speaking Italian, Paul thought, or maybe Portuguese.

It must have been jetlag and two restless nights, as well as a touch of hangover, that made his surroundings seem stranger than they should have been and distorted his sense of time. Cynthia's house—his house—the backyard, the kids, his cat Franklin, all seemed impossibly far away, part of a life he'd left behind so long ago he could no longer be sure it was real. And the life he'd lived previously, in his hushed apartment on West End Avenue, where he sat in the dark eating beef skewers and rice, where for a time he'd bedded young women and then turned away from them in fear and disgust, seemed more recent in comparison, the life he'd return to if he ever left this place. At the bottom of the stairs the woman paused to wait for him, turning without moving her feet. Whatever children he'd heard yelling were no longer here. "I went to the Grand Canyon once," the woman said. "Before now that's the farthest I've been from home." He expected her to say more, but she didn't. She stayed where she was, feet planted, until he passed her and held open the door. And then she walked through it as slowly as possible, as if camera bulbs were waiting to flash on the other side.

The Italian or Portuguese children had beaten them to Giacometti. There were maybe two dozen of them, running between the pedestals, standing on benches, shouting. A pair of adults stood in their midst, one of them clapping her hands over her head, the other whistling with his fingers in his mouth, but Paul couldn't tell whether they were trying to quiet the kids or add to the din. Neither could he be sure whether the face the woman made—nose scrunching as if she'd caught a whiff of something foul—was directed at the children or the sculpture. He explained Giacometti's work to her, summarizing what was on the placards she had no interest in reading, quickly moving her past the early surrealist work to the mature pieces she was most likely to see on postcards. "He was trying to capture the essence of the human figure," he said, after glancing at another placard.

"He got it right here," she said, standing in front of the famous emaciated dog, ears drooping, nose close to the ground. "The essence of my ex-husband."

It was hard to be depressed, hard to be affected at all, with children shouting and jostling him, but still he would have preferred not to see the sculpture again, the elongated walking men with hollow eyes and nothing that looked like skin—an image, he thought, of how he might look in twenty, thirty years, when his body began to give way to whatever would linger after it was gone. And maybe it was happening already, his flesh going not only soft but indistinct. Why else would Cynthia look so surprised those nights when he nuzzled her neck and ran a hand down her side, as if she'd forgotten he had hands and lips, as if she expected his touch to be weightless. He was a month shy of forty-five. He wasn't yet ready to give up the body, not his own or others. If he didn't experience desire as often as he once had, it was only because no one encouraged it. Could he blame himself if it was now stirred by this stranger standing beside one of Giacometti's tall female figures, arms stiff at her sides, lips pursed?

"I look just like her, don't I?" she asked. "Except my feet aren't so big. And I don't have such nice hoots."

On the way out of the museum they stopped in the gift shop, where Paul bought a miniature replica of the scrawny dog for Joy's birthday. Joy wanted a real dog, but so far Paul had put her off by saying she'd have to wait until Franklin was gone, by which time, he hoped, she'd be away at college. The woman picked out several postcards, including one picturing Monet's cheese mold and another showing the Giacometti figure she supposedly resembled. The latter she filled out in the museum's lobby, after retrieving her purse from the coat check and digging through it a good three minutes to find a pen. When she finished, she showed it to Paul. "Dear Sis," it read. "This is what I looked like after flying all night. Next time I'm taking sleeping pills. Heehaw, Trish."

 

It was Paul's suggestion to take the boat ride on the lake, and he made it, he told himself, because he had no idea what else to do. By the time they left the museum it was clear they would spend the rest of the afternoon together, though neither of them had said so out loud. And unless he walked her through the old part of the city, to the historic churches full of tourists, or to a beer hall he'd been taken to the previous night—either of which would send their footsteps in the direction of his hotel—he couldn't think of any way to pass the time. He had two and a half hours until a scheduled dinner with his hosts, and that gave him just long enough, he figured, to tire of Trish's voice and her habit of grabbing his arm, gasping, and pointing whenever something caught her eye. She did it in the middle of the street after they left the museum, gesturing, he thought, at the towers of the Grossmünster, but what she saw, as it turned out, was a bird sitting on a cable as a tram approached. She didn't want it to get electrocuted. Couldn't they do something? Throw a rock and scare it away? With her hand on his arm, Paul dragged her the rest of the way across the street. The bird flew off long before the tram reached it.

Trish worked for a bank in Weehawken, administrative assistant to the chief operating officer. He was in Zurich for a conference on international lending practices and had insisted she join him. He needed someone to take notes and keep his appointments. He also gave her his camera and told her to take pictures of him with anyone who looked important. She pulled it out of her purse—an expensive Minolta with a massive lens—and snapped a shot of the boat before they boarded. "How could I say no to a free plane ticket?" she asked as they stepped onto the gangway, and then answered herself, shaking her head. "I should have known better." Her boss had flown over, first class, on Friday, so he could spend the weekend skiing. He'd sent Trish on Monday, coach. For the past two days she'd snoozed through presentations in a windowless room, but today she'd skipped out after the morning session. She was around bankers all day at home, she said. Why do it halfway around the world? "He can kiss my ass if he thinks I'm coming back for the last day." She didn't ask what Paul did for a living or what he was doing here. In fact, she didn't ask him anything—not where he was from or whether he had a family, though he made an effort to keep his wedding ring in plain sight.

"My honeymoon was on a boat," she said, leaning far enough over the railing to watch the wake they were cutting through the lake's choppy surface. "A cruise ship to St. Thomas. Back then I could put on a bikini without a second thought."

A strong breeze stirred the water, but it did nothing to ruffle Trish's hair, those spikes on her cheeks staying put. It whipped her slacks around her legs, sometimes tracing a perfect outline, sometimes making them appear shapeless, empty spaces disguised by rustling fabric. It was cold enough on deck that most of the other passengers were inside, looking out through tinted windows, but except for a small patch covering the sun, the clouds had mostly lifted. The Alps made a ragged line against the sky. Paul knew from one of the museum placards that Giacometti had grown up among those peaks to the south, his village set high in a narrow valley that lay in perpetual shadow. It was no wonder his figures had no skin and hardly any flesh. Paul wished the clouds would blow a few degrees to the left, to let down a little more light.

"It was romantic enough," Trish said. She had her boss's camera out now, snapping indiscriminately at the water, at the mountains, at Paul. "You know, the sun and beaches and good food. We had a cabin with a balcony. Spent plenty of time in there. But I haven't been on a boat since."

Only one other couple was left on the small aft deck, but the woman began rubbing her arms, and in a language Paul didn't recognize said something to her companion, whose face was stony behind mirrored sunglasses. The two of them ducked inside, leaving Paul and Trish alone.

"We talked about doing a raft when we went to the Grand Canyon," Trish said, turning her back on the water, peering at Paul through the camera's viewfinder. "That was a year and a half ago. But it was so expensive, and too dangerous with the kids. Three boys. Oldest just turned ten. Should have left them with my folks. That's where they are now."

This was Paul's chance to talk about Cynthia and the kids, how far he felt from them, how easy it was to put them out of his mind. He might have told her that he couldn't have imagined how much Joy and Kyle would feel like his own children, and how crushing he sometimes found it that they would never be all the way his. He might have said that what he had with everyone in his life was at best a tenuous connection—with everyone except for Franklin, who had only a few years left, who might at this moment be loose in the raccoon-infested wilds of northern New Jersey—and all it took was a few days for him to feel those connections stretch and fray.

The clouds had moved as he'd hoped, a beam of sunlight striking the painted wooden boards of the deck. Trish turned her face to the sky, eyes closed, lips parted. When she spoke again, she kept her head that way and barely moved her mouth. "It could have been romantic, too," she said. "The sunset over the canyon. The whole place turning some crazy orange. But the boys kept getting close to the edge, and I got tired of chasing them away. It was gone before you could take it in. You get married young, and then you're thinking about the kids for years, and the whole thing . . . I don't even think I looked at him for five years. I mean, really looked at him. And then he's standing there like a fucking idiot in the sunset, with no clue what to do when his three-year-old's getting ready to pitch into the Grand-goddamn-Canyon." She lowered her head and opened her eyes, blinking and then shading them with the camera. "You think divorce'll solve everything. But then you're working for a guy who's been trying to fuck you since the day he hired you. You let him buy you clothes and fly you across the world, and every time he looks at you with those little pigeon eyes you're trying to figure out how you're going to keep him off you, or maybe you decide to just give in because it's easier. And you get a crazy fucking haircut, you get on a boat with a complete stranger who picks you up in an art museum of all places . . . "

The sun was all the way out now, and the other couple came back outside. Trish seemed to be waiting for just this moment to give him the insulted, accusatory look she'd turned on him in the airport, a mixture of scorn and challenge. She made an odd movement, crouching down and taking one step in his direction, arm flinging out as if to smack him. But then it swung up over her head, toward the water, and only after a moment did he realize she'd lobbed the camera. He caught sight of it on its descent, surprisingly far from the boat, a little black mark against the blue sky and then the gray mountains. It made no sound when it hit the lake. As soon as it disappeared, Trish ran past him, climbing the stairs to the upper deck. It was the fastest he'd seen her move. He smiled at the other couple apologetically and followed. Her back was to him, head tilted against a pole that propped a canopy overhead. He expected to find her crying, as he'd found Joy on multiple occasions over the past year, curled up on a couch or chair in a dark room he thought was vacant, and then shouting about never having any privacy, about everyone constantly getting in her face. But Trish was dry-eyed, staring out at the dark water, two fingers pulling at the point of hair on her right cheek.

"Shit on toast," she said when he reached her.

"You can say someone stole it."

"He had pictures of his kids on there."

Only now did he realize the boat had turned around, the city growing again on the horizon. He checked his watch. In less than an hour he was due to meet his associates for dinner. He'd likely be late, for the first time in his career.