He met her in the bar under the trestle, the same one he’d been going to since he was a teenager. He noticed Jessica right away, sitting at the end of the bar, near the window. He struck up a conversation – he was a friendly guy, anyone would say that – learning that she’d recently been divorced and hadn’t had the occasion to go out in a while. He said she looked lovely. Jessica blushed. He knew what to say to women, how to woo and beguile and then disabuse himself of them.
They met once or twice a week, usually at Jessica’s house before her kids returned from school. She lived in a semi-attached house on Auburndale Lane. She had half a yard and half a driveway and a lamentable patch of crabgrass. He liked to lounge in bed with her afterward, stroking her hair and smoking an unfiltered cigarette, inhaling deeply and puffing out tiny, perfect rings. He couldn’t light up at home, couldn’t light up around Rory, his wife always after him about second-hand smoke.
He told Jessica he would pick her and her kids up at noon, and from there they would drive to Flushing Meadows, the grounds of the 1964 World’s Fair. Eight hundred ninety-seven acres of loamy terrain including a tarnished Unisphere and a decommissioned pavilion of the future. Jessica had never been, though she’d lived in the vicinity her whole life. She’d been to the City only once or twice, her life more or less circumscribed to Auburndale and the environs.
It was a balmy spring day, the first one that year. “Get your stuff, we’re going for a ride,” he told Rory.
They rode down Utopia Parkway. For a nondescript borough on the periphery of the City, the streets certainly had fanciful names. He rolled down the window, a concession to his habit.
Rory was in fifth grade, or was it sixth? He could no longer remember. The boy didn’t say much.
“How’s school going, son?” he asked, one hand on the wheel, the other flicking the ashes into the minstrel wind.
“Fine,” the boy said. There was already dark terrain in his soul, unilluminated patches.
“That’s it, fine?” Every once in a while, he thought to inquire about the day-to-day goings-on, to probe around the edges. He told Rory to study, not to fail, to get a good job with benefits, things parents were supposed to say to ensure that children didn’t succumb to their reckless impulses. But his heart was only half in it; who was he to lecture the boy?
“Yeah, fine.” The sound of the wind shearing the window.
He turned off on Pidgeon Meadow and pulled into Jessica’s driveway. The shingles were flaking off. She needed a new roof, among other things. You had to keep a house up, else it would fall into disrepair, succumb to the elements.
“Wait here,” he directed Rory.
He stumbled on the way to the door and cursed sotto voce.
Jessica’s youngest was crying, refusing to go. She was clinging onto her skirt and screaming the way only children could – a high-pitched wail, a sound that jarred the brain.
“She didn’t nap,” Jessica explained.
He allowed her to calm them down and herd them into the car. He took a moment to have another cigarette, blowing the smoke off to the side. Her gutters were in terrible shape, he noticed.
“Get in the back,” he directed his son.
“This is Emily, that’s Leah, and that’s Jack.” Jessica climbed in the seat next to him, her skirt form fitting. It was the same skirt she was wearing when he’d first met her. He remembered the seam, the way it frayed around the edges. She smiled at him. Her skin was soft, softer than any woman’s he’d ever met. She would age well, he considered. “Are you behaving back there?” she asked her children.
“Yes, mom,” came the reply. Rory had grown up alone, no siblings to taunt. They’d considered having another, but the wife had difficulties, a condition that made carrying to term dangerous to her health.
He regarded his son in the rearview mirror. He was gazing out the window, the wind riffling his hair, not saying much of anything. He wasn’t interested in running in the park or tossing pitches. He didn’t seem to need him anymore, had already relegated him to a certain place.
“We’re going to Flushing Meadow!” Jessica exclaimed, keeping up the patter, relieving him of the obligation.
“Who are you?” one of the girls asked him.
“This is mommy’s friend. Remember I told you?” Jessica chided, casting an eye back on the children. Her hair had a reddish sheen in the light, a certain undertone. He’d never noticed it before.
He took side streets, wanting to avoid the traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway. The area surrounding the park was beset by traffic detours, ongoing construction. The streets were always caving in, unable to withstand the traffic and weather conditions.
When he was younger, he thought of getting out. Moving into the City, or out on the island, following the money trail. He’d waited too long. The rents had become prohibitive, the housing shortages acute. Long Island City was renting at $5 per square foot! Long Island City, industrial wasteland.
Now, he was stuck. The house was paid off, the property taxes minimal. He could afford to go to the shore for a few weeks every summer; he could whittle away the time at the bar under the trestle, thinking of what might have been, what might have transpired elsewhere in another life.
“Look,” screeched Jack. The globe was looming over them now. It looked old, tarnished, a downtrodden facsimile.
The area was now overgrown, besotted with weeds. The ground was rough and hardscrabble. The ground was rocky, the remnants of the old moraine, the glacial substratum. The whole of it had once been old man Bowne’s farm, vast, sprawling acreage. It had undergone a process of division, and further subdivision, as the population overflowed.
They parked the car and dragged provisions onto the field. Jessica had a cooler and a picnic basket and diversions for the kids – wiffle balls, frisbees, disks that could be hurled skyward, falling somewhere short of the heavens.
Jessica arranged a blanket on the ground and secured it with their shoes and weights. “Beautiful day,” she said, the wind blowing the hair in her face. She unwrapped some blocks of cheese and set them out on a paper plate. She unscrewed a canteen and handed a glass of red wine to him. It had a metallic aftertaste.
He hadn’t wanted to muddy their relation by meeting the kids, going on outings, making himself palpable. It was easier to meet at the bar in the early evenings, to make love in the twilight, unmarked time, passages to be played rubato.
And now, here they were, eating crackers, drinking cheap wine, kites flying in the distance, unspooling against the blank sky.
He wondered how long it would be before he disappointed her. How long before she came to bore him, and make him wish he were elsewhere, in another bar under the trestle, a place where initials were gored in the wood, and the jukebox played Sympathy for the Devil.
It was already becoming more complicated than he had intended. She was holding his hand, looking at him a certain way, wanting to define their relationship, give it dimension and lineaments.
“You look nice,” he said. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever been with, but she was better than most. She had a softness to her, a roundness to her cheeks, a fulsomeness to her breasts. He liked lying naked next to her, feeling the mingling of their limbs and the soft incurve of her belly. She tasted like honey and orange blossoms. There wasn’t much more to it than that. There never was.
“I could fall for you,” Jessica smiled, her eyes luminous in the sun. She fed him brie on a cracker, wiping the corners of his mouth.
The atmosphere felt close, suddenly, the air leaden with expectation. He would have to end it soon. She was an interlude. A song that played in his head, tra la la. But he could shut the door and never think of her again. People liked to think they were special, irreplaceable, but the truth was they were all just playing roles, imbuing one another with qualities they never possessed.
“That would be a mistake.”
“Is that so?”
He looked away from her, toward the horizon. The two girls – Emily and Leah?, he had trouble remembering their names – were flinging a disk back and forth. Jack was off in the distance, spinning in circles, falling down, succumbing to the disorientation. He squinted, but could not see Rory.
“Have you seen my boy?” he asked. He knocked over a cup of wine in his haste to get up.
“He was just here a second ago,” Jessica assured him, still clinging to his hand.
He brushed her off and stood up, scanning around them. “Where did he go?” he asked. Emily and Leah shrugged. Jack pointed west, toward the lake. “He went that way,” he indicated.
The man stumbled toward the lake. He saw a group of children playing catch. “Hey, did you see a boy? About eleven? Reddish brown hair?”
They shook their heads. He looked up. The same blank sky, the same unerring canvas. A frayed cloud, unspooling across the sky. He heard the call of a swallow in the distance, returning home after the winter’s migration. He and Rory sometimes hiked in the woods together, marveling at all that nature had wrought. The old Dutch elms, the remnants of the glacial moraine: upheaval and slow, insidious erosion.
His father liked to bring him to the bar under the trestle. He would say he was babysitting, then laugh, throw back a glass of whiskey. Sometimes he disappeared outside to smoke a cigarette.
He’d say this is my boy, presenting him to his friends, old men with haggard faces and women with bright lipstick who tried to kiss the boy, brush the hair from his forehead.
After, they went home and his father kissed his mother and sometimes they argued. Sometimes his mother yelled at his father for corrupting the boy. Then they ate dinner in silence, only the clanging of the utensils and detonation of the wall clock, tick-tick-tick.
He went outside afterward, looking up at the sky, familiarizing himself with the phases of the moon and the hidden patterns of the sky. His favorite constellation was Ursa Minor, the little bear, a twinkling on the edge of the sky.
He’d seen the lady in the bar under the trestle. His father waved to the bartender and he brought the lady a red drink with a tiny umbrella in it. She sipped the concoction through a straw while his father told her about his ideas. He was designing this-or-that in his basement shop and had an application in the patent office. He had dropped out of school just shy of an engineering degree. Many smart people were bored by school, did she know that? She nodded along and when her drink was done his father waved to the bartender and he brought another.
His mother said, I can’t believe you bring him to such places, and I can’t trust you to behave, slamming the door and going upstairs and remaining locked behind the door for a long while. The tick-tick-tick of the wall clock.
He had a book about the universe. It spoke of the space-time continuum and black holes, places from which no light escaped. It spoke of dark matter and dark energy, forces scientists were unable to quantify. He looked at photos of stars in galaxies light-years away, after images of imploded stars.
Sometimes they went hiking in the woods. His father would poke the dead trees and tssk and say what a shame. He’d pick up the leaves and dig up the worms from the soil. The boy watched them grappling, blind, in his father’s hand. Put them down, tugging on his sleeve, begging him to spare them. Everything is a competition for resources, son. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.
On his eleventh birthday, his father came home with a pizza from Sal’s. He stuck a candle in it and sang Happy Birthday, the words barely intelligible. He’d promised to buy the boy a telescope but he’d come up short. Presented him with an I.O.U. on a scrap of paper. His mother clucked and left the room, said he was a disgrace. That was the night his father fell down the stairs, slipped on some unknown object, and broke his ankle. His mother apologized for his wreck of a father and promised that she’d make it better. Would he like to live somewhere else, somewhere in the country maybe? She filled his head with visions of fresh grass and birch forests. He could see the stars, the panorama of the Milky Way, lain bare. Think of it! she said, tracing her finger over the map of the cosmos, going over the names of the stars, an incantation. But in the end, they never left.
He looked out the window at the world blurring by. The old shuttered course where they used to play miniature golf. The undulating hills of south Flushing. The long sigh of pine trees. Their shapes dissolving, colors bleeding into one another.
The lady brought a picnic basket. She told her kids to behave and not make a fuss. She told his father that he made her very happy and leaned in to kiss him. He smacked her on the rear and said I’ll extract my reward later.
The lady’s daughter said, your dad and my mom are doing it, groaning and laughing. He recognized her from the neighborhood. She snapped her gum loudly and swung her leg. The lady said what a beautiful day for a picnic, and kissed his father on the cheek, leaving a mark.
She offered the boy some grapes from a plastic bag. They were already deflated, overripe. “No thank you,” he declined. She didn’t look at him when she talked, but at somewhere in the distance, as if he weren’t even there.
She offered his father a cup of wine. They lay back together on the blanket, his father’s arm around the lady, the lady huddled at his side. He never lay like that with the boy’s mother. They never held hands and they never kissed, other than a swift peck on the cheek. They stood apart from each other, atomized.
The boy wandered out onto the field. At first, he intended only to explore. He considered engaging the other children in a game of catch, or hide-and-seek, but the place was open, nothing to hide behind. He climbed to the top of a hillock and walked toward the lake. The water was shimmering, like cut glass. It was a man-made lake, an unnatural contrivance. It had been stocked with perch and turtles and made to seem a welcoming habitat.
The boy saw a kite on the edge of the sky. A red dragon, unfurling in the breeze. He walked toward it, wanting to get a better view. He walked around the edge of the lake and toward the horizon. The sky was blank, the light unfiltered. He wished he’d had sunglasses to block it out, to mitigate the harsh light.
He blinked and the kite was down. It had fallen out of the sky, a flattened drape. It had seemed so impressive when airborne, animated by the wind. Now it was nothing special, just a tattered fabric.
For a brief second, he considered whether to turn back. But then he kept walking. He knew how to navigate by the position of the sun. Once he was out of the park it was easier to get his bearings. He turned at the corner and walked in the direction of home. His mother would be waiting for him there with a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of whole milk. The moon would be in waxing crescent. Venus would be visible to the naked eye. There was a meteor shower predicted, a hail of interstellar particles. He would sit outside, contemplating the sky, its manifest mysteries.