She paused, as if she’d just discovered that fact. Her cigarette dangled above the mottled ash tray. Her eyelids lowered, her mouth curled, a little joke with herself, a soft breathy ha into the smoke. Gallows humor? The thought seemed to settle with her tapped ashes. I imagined her cheeks thinner. Approaching translucence. Now she was opaque—creamy if a bit jaundiced. Inhaling, she tilted her chin sideways, clear eyes hooked to mine with a shrewdness which left me feeling naked.
Heavy summer rain poured outside the bar on First Avenue. Strictly vertical without a hint of wind. Inside it was suffocating. I sipped at lukewarm beer. I was trying to make it last. Her skin glowed. Her voice rasped. She must have been smoking since she was ten. We were in a dark corner at a sticky table. I’d closed the store early that night. She was sitting there alone. Ram-rod posture despite a relaxed air. On a whim I’d asked if I could join her. I was so happy she said yes; I must have been lonelier than I realized. She had a great name. One with texture. Roxandra. I ran her revelation through my head again. In fact in Vienna I starved a little.
“It must have been hard,” I said. I shifted in my seat, my leg moving closer to hers before I even consciously thought of it. The place was silent, except for a couple of old Ukrainian men hunched at the bar muttering to one another (I wondered what decades-old secrets they shared), the sound of rain hitting hot pavement, cars splashing down the avenue.
She shrugged, ran fingers through a crop of wet brassy hair.
“What did I know? I made a bag of rolls and a chicken last each week. I lived in a tiny room and spent my time walking. I had no idea.”
Bones, stripped of all but a few morsels of gristle, lowered slowly into a pot of boiling water, cooked for hours until all the nutrients leached from them into an ascetic end-of-week broth—I imagined myself doing something similar with leftover fried chicken. I could learn something from her.
Her lips contorted to blow smoke off to the side. Her eyes twinkled. At me? I ordered us two more beers even though I was down to five dollars. Outside, the sky tinted green. Rumbled. The weather intended to stay. For a minute I thought we’d settle in. Nurse drinks, tell stories. She seemed like an interesting one. She seemed like she had something in her that could—somehow—change me. I thought she would say more about Vienna. I felt myself opening up to her.
Instead, she asked, “Do you know Nadia Comaneci?”
“Of course. She’s like, the most famous Romanian. Other than Dracula.”
She smirked and leaned in. A whiff of her perfume tugged at my shirt. What was it about that perfume?
“I was on her team. Tore a ligament before the Montreal Olympics. Couldn’t go.” She leaned back, as if pushing me away, and extended her leg on the empty chair beside me, her mannerisms a tango. This seemed like a fine time to look her up and down. A scar across one eyebrow gave her a look of mischief.
“No kidding.” In ten years she’d filled out, more woman than gymnast. Wide-hipped. But that posture. I imagined her in a bowler cap. Leaning jauntily on a cane. “Have you read Kundera?”
“What’s that?” She leaned in again, cheek in hand. Affecting something childlike and skeptical all at once. Her perfume could only be described in one word: adult.
“The Czech author? He lives in France.” She shook her head and smiled, something between tell me more and I give zero fucks. I couldn’t tell. “He’s got this novel that opens with a woman’s stomach growling.” She waited. “It just reminded me of what you said about Vienna. Starving.”
“Aha. You have it? You’ll show me?”
A warm bolt shot through me, chin to cock.
We hustled through the rain, a block to my store. Dust and the smells of copper and nickel inside. The room comprised two aisles of hardware, silhouettes of tools obscured and illuminated by triangles of the avenue’s electric light. I had not yet begun the process of liquidation. I had only just realized that it might be a possibility.
“You live here?”
A pea green curtain hid my living space from the store. I led her to the back and pulled the curtain behind us, kept the overhead fluorescents off and switched on the incandescent bedside lamp. She appraised the cot, the hot plate, the short bookcase crammed with books. A broken clock whose second hand ticked insistently at 1:01. Rain splattered against the skylight splotched with bird droppings: an action painting. My own shitty work sat freshly in a dumpster outside. Later I would salvage the tubes of oil though the canvases are gone forever. I plucked Kundera off the bedside table, but she was entranced with a record, the sleeves’ edges between her palms, more enthusiastic than she’d been all evening.
The record crackled and spun. The cot creaked as we sat.
My one grown up appliance: a full-sized refrigerator. It came with the shop. I had bought everything, including the business, from an elderly bachelor who suggested I could save a lot of money by living in the back. A friend of my uncle, who patted me on the shoulder at my father’s funeral. The inheritance was negligible. I’d dropped out of college, because of my father and the year before that my mother. The losses stifled—I already knew there’d been something to tell them, something that troubled me about myself that I’d been working up to articulate. I never did.
The man gave me hope. I still ran everything into the ground.
“Where’s your bathroom?”
She reappeared naked. Theatrically leaned on the refrigerator with hip cocked. Full dark bush. I swallowed and fumbled out of my clothes. She moved toward me with the steady determination of a shark. Or what I imagined of a shark. Moving subtly side to side yet with a clear goal forward. A toothy grin emerged as she closed in. I regretted the music; “Kashmir” seemed too on the nose.
On the cot, she pulled me to her, above her.
The second I was inside she said, “I have a husband.”
“Should we stop?”
“He’s in Toronto.”
For a former gymnast, she wasn’t very twisty. Or didn’t try to be. Also, I thought she’d be dirtier. Bite my ear, etc. Stereotype? I slid my pointer finger up her ass, so that she might follow my lead. Instead her thighs squeezed me tighter, with an unsettling strength, and her tongue slid deeper in my mouth. Large breasts worry me, but hers were a medium heft, not so disconcerting. Her nipples were hard—scarlet and perfect—and it was the least sexy lay I’d ever had. Technically arousing—but somehow distant. I was all Prague 1968 and she was all I have a husband in Toronto. We went at it hard for several minutes. Perhaps I thought the vigor would break down this barrier I felt. Perhaps I thought it would be more becoming of me, of my sense of being a man. Her perfume grew stronger.
I thought about Greg Louganis.
She wiped her stomach with my discarded t-shirt and left it in a clump on the floor. We lay crammed on the narrow bed, more sweaty from the weight of summer than a long exertion. I propped my head on my hand, elbow along her ear.
“So why is he in Toronto?”
“We took different paths. He wants Toronto. I want New York.”
Simple. Yet complicated. She lit up another cigarette, picked tobacco from her tongue.
“Do you have kids?”
She shook her head. I didn’t believe her. I wondered whether they lived with him. Or back there. Or not at all. Her head turned toward the useless clock. That spot on her collar bone, the divot, glimmered. A thin gold chain ran across it, from which a tiny cross dangled.
“He swam across the Danube. I thought he would die. Thought he did die. I was in Vienna. I stayed for a year until I could come over. But all this is boring you?”
“Not at all!” I put my hand on her stomach. She flinched.
“I’ll take a shower,” she said. Peeled herself off damp sheets. She left the door open, sound of water on tile mixing with the rain. I pulled on a pair of shorts, unsure of myself. I’d said the wrong thing. Done the wrong thing. I would never see her again, I knew. I’d never seen her in the bar before. She had a distinct just passing through quality about her. Was she going to Toronto?
Then I thought: I’d been used for something. Some hinge in a life. Hers?
She came out dressed, wet hair pointing in all directions.
“I’ll go now,” she said.
“Can I take you back home? Put you in a cab?”
She shook her head with finality. I imagined her husband a substantial man: broad-shouldered, dark, and hairy. A chemist. No. An aerospace engineer. But would such an expert need to swim across the Danube? I was a pale bald boy stumbling forward, one failure into adulthood. The backroom smelled like salt. And her perfume. Rosewood. Blood orange. As I bolted the door behind her, I considered whether she meant our encounter to give herself permission to take further action in her life. Break things off with Toronto.
In fact she was the last woman I ever slept with. One of two. I’d thought I’d never see her again, but Facebook tells me she’s a real estate broker in LA. Her hair is longer and lighter, coarsened from bleach, her grin toothier, lips the color of candy apples. That’s the only photo available, all else hidden from unfriends. (Unfriends is my daughter’s terminology. Like the undead, she says.) No information about marriage and no mutual friends—not that that’s surprising. I considered messaging her, but what would that recalled memory elicit? It would be an “other” message, possibly never seen, which has an appeal of its own. Would she even remember me? Or was I part of a long stream of hinges, ways of creating protective distances while still making tenuous connections at a strange time in her life. Both of our lives. I have a hard time pinning down this idea. A coping mechanism, to be reductive. A doorway. A threshold in an earthquake.
She was my last encounter in the before. Her ease of operation emboldened me to become the after.
In her picture, she’s leaning on the ledge of a white stucco terrace, an impossibly blue Pacific behind her. Sunglasses, shiny and black, work against a blinding ocean light. Her perfume must have changed for California—peony, apricots, white tea. A chip on her front tooth, a small gap which I hadn’t noticed back then, complements her eyebrow scar. Her skin remains opaque, more tan now than creamy. Buffed smooth. By now I’m another person and she must be another Roxandra. Ritual exfoliation has its benefits.
My daughter creeps behind me, puts her hands on my shoulders.
“Dad made dinner,” she says. The house smells intensely of basil, Robert’s quintessential herb, grown profusely in our garden. I can hear him setting the table outside, the gentle clink and clatter. “Who’s that?”
Her cheek brushes mine. It’s losing its babyishness—she’s twelve, she’s been asking more and more questions about her birth mother. We lost touch after the finalization. Her chin lowers to the crook of my neck, peppermint on her breath. Wintergreen.
“An old friend. Acquaintance, really.”
The wet crunch of her last candy garbles, slightly, “An unfriend.”
“You could say that.”
“She looks good. For her age.”
“Hey.” We butt heads gently, in the way that we do. The screen dims.
I stand and rest my palm on her warm, silky hair. Together we gravitate from the cave of the darkened den through a gradual widening: the narrow, oak-heavy dining room, the square azure kitchen, the twilit airiness of the verandah. My lungs expand: I suddenly miss my parents. The feeling grasps my throat. And crickets begin their nightly chirr, and beyond our table, on the dark grass, fireflies pulse, hover.
Anca L. Szilágyi
Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air, which Shelf Awareness called “a striking debut from a writer to watch” and The Seattle Review of Books called “a creation of unearthly talents.” Her writing appears in Orion Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Made at Hugo House, Jack Straw Cultural Center, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and Vermont Studio Center. Originally from Brooklyn, she has lived in Montreal, Seattle, and now Chicago. Find her at ancawrites.com.