The late afternoon is cold and threatening snow, and the streets of Coney Island are deserted except for an elderly black man walking a ridiculously small dog out along the boardwalk and a few drunks in a doorway mutedly arguing over a bottle. Thomas passes by without making eye contact. The wind gusts around him, tugging at the hem of his overcoat, and he is glad that he has thought to wear a scarf but knows he could have done with gloves too. His pockets provide nothing in the way of heat.
He follows the main thoroughfare south, moving at a solid pace, until he reaches an outlying bar, a little nonentity of a place that keeps its lights turned way down and won’t spoil the mood with awkward questions. As he enters, a few men at the counter strain into begrudged half-turns and consider him up and down, their slow, glassy eyes playing games of focus with the dusty, pressing light. But he ignores them.
Caitlin is sitting in a little semi-private alcove with a view across the floor to the doorway and the two large fogged-glass windows, but her head is inclined into the downward capture of a daydream and she does not immediately notice that he has arrived. From a distance, she looks tired and put-upon, hung up in the last vestiges of middle-age. But this is at least something of an illusion. She has already been here nearly an hour, long enough to grow accustomed to the bar’s weighty gloom. A glass waits between her hands, containing a thimbleful of bourbon which she has sipped to taste and then promptly abandoned.
When Thomas moves to her side, she looks up, her sloe-coloured eyes startled for an instant. His mouth turns in a little explanatory way and holds there.
“Hi,” he says, the word all breath.
“Hi, back,” she replies, and pushes deeper into the booth so that he can sit on her right side. Their bodies come gently together, their shoulders and arms and hips and thighs, and she is overtaken by a wave of elation that feels at once both absurd and entirely genuine. If it should all end suddenly, these would be the moments that she’d want to hold dearest to her heart. After thirteen years of carefully planned twice-monthly collisions, they know each other’s bodies inside and out, but the way he sits beside her always feels like the very definition of intimacy.
By contrast, his kiss is a perfunctory thing, barely a step removed from a handshake. Publicly insecure, his face stabs at hers, their mouths meet for a dry instant, then just as quickly break apart. In place are the nuts and bolts of a smile, but nothing has been assembled, and then his gaze begins to stray, pulled by a need to survey the bar, an old paranoia; a difficult habit to break. Caitlin considers the labyrinthine scrolling of his ear and out of duty or want tries to smile for both of them, and to hold fast to the myriad flavours of his fleeting kiss.
Thomas calls a drink. During the summer he is a staunch beer man, but once the wind begins to blow his tastes turn Scottish. Old blood, he explains, whenever he feels the need for gags. He orders a fresh bourbon too, without asking, and sets it down alongside her barely touched first.
Their routine feels carved in marble. Order is important, to Thomas more so than to Caitlin, but to Caitlin, too, because she wants Thomas to be happy or, at least, at ease about what they are doing. Without the small, refined details he would turn to dust.
“Thanks for waiting,” he says, as he settles against her body again.
She smiles, does something fresh with her shoulders. “No problem,” she tells him. “Thank you for coming.”
This, like much of what is going on here and what will go on later, never varies. Same words, same acts, same feelings. Beautiful routine. He lifts his glass and knocks back a finger of his double-shot. The lines at the corners of his eyes momentarily pinch and deepen, then soften once more. When the glass makes it back onto the table, he has become a different man, the man she knows and wants him to be rather than the lurching shell who spends eight or ten hours a day working a desk and the rest of his time working his way home.
“Barb’s got cancer,” he says, almost absently.
“What?” For a second or two, she holds onto the desperate hope that she has somehow misheard.
He looks at her, nods his head, and then lets his gaze fall once again across the table. There are a few pale spatters of paint staining the seat across from them, ancient teardrop scars dating from some prehistoric time when somebody actually cared a damn about the way this place looked.
“In the kidneys, they’re saying. Actually, I’m afraid the prognosis is not all that great. I think the doctors suspect that it has already spread. They have been using words like ‘aggressive’ and ‘metastasis’, words that can’t really fill you with confidence.”
Caitlin sips her drink, holding her lips tightly to the glass. Suddenly the bourbon has lost its heat. “That’s awful. I’m sorry,” she says, but the words sound reedy and feel flat as paper. Not insincere, just worthless.
There is more to be said, but for now the stillness feels absolute. Thomas has been living with all of this for a while, though he is only now speaking of it, perhaps is only now able to speak of it, but even weeks or months along, a kind of numbness lingers. He has the dreamy look of a boxer who has known too many blows to the head, or of a drunk who has finally given all the way up on the pretence of sobriety. He speaks slowly, leaking air.
“The treatment will be very difficult. Chemotherapy works by poisoning the system, and even on the best days the side-effects are bad. Barb has never been what you might call a great patient. I can’t see how she will cope with something like this. But who knows, right? I guess when your back is to the wall you either fight or you curl up your toes and call it quits.”
They finish their drinks together. Thomas has lost a little weight. Not much, but it shows around his face. In this poor light, his skin has the flushed-out texture of tissue paper and hangs from his bones, lending a maudlin heft to his nose and cheeks. He takes his scotch in little repetitive jabs. The glass between his long, slender fingers reminds Caitlin of a mother bird vomit-feeding her young. On another day, she would be asking him now about work. The usual sort of thing, exchanging tidbits of office gossip, taking turns condemning all the tedious workplace politics, and simply venting a general air of unhappiness. They have been speaking the same sentences for thirteen years, yet the staleness of the answers in no way at all offends. Work-talk provides safe footing. They know the ground and recognize the boundaries. At their age, Caitlin in her mid-forties, Thomas a fraction older, their sense of longing has shifted. They no longer seek thrills, but look instead for comfort.
Work seems so inconsequential now. The news of Barb’s cancer is not a bombshell, exactly, but it has changed the ambience of things. Thomas rolls his empty glass in half turns between his palms, his stately way of readying himself for more. But Caitlin has had enough.
“Let’s go,” she says. “Let’s take a walk.” She has to fight off the press of tears.
The glass stops turning. His face is within kissing reach, and his pupils, because of the barroom’s gloom, are significantly dilated.
“It’s bitter out.”
She hitches her shoulders in a little so-what gesture. “There are ways of keeping warm,” she says, crimping the corner of her mouth. “Come on, Tommy. Just out to the end of the boardwalk. I love Coney Island on a day like this, with the wind keeping everyone away.”
He sighs, one of his beautiful little foibles, a great heaving gust that suggests a spine-deep exhaustion too great to even contemplate. She enjoys the sound of it, mostly for its yielding quality. After a moment, he sets down his glass and rises from the booth. The surrender is slight but absolute.
Outside, the cold closes in hard, forcing them to walk almost in each other’s arms. They keep to the shelter of the buildings, where shelter is available, but out on the pier the famished wind tears at them with all the ferocity of a wild dog, turning them disheveled in a hurry. Pale needlepoint flecks mottle the surface of the slate-coloured ocean and a great furred bilge of surf breaks in thick, repeated rheum across the deserted length of strand northwards for as far as the eye can see. Yet further out, a kind of weary calm prevails, though perhaps this is just a deception of distance coupled with the tawny compression of fading day.
They stop and lean against the protective railing, Caitlin tightens her grip on Thomas’s arm, and together they listen to the bleating wind and the delicious crashing of the water against the stanchion posts below. They fit comfortably together. Around them, the hotdog stands and ice cream stalls sit shuttered tight and padlocked, battened down for the season, but even in a dormant state, even with a lack of calliope music and the running laughter of tear-away kids, there is still a kind of residual joy to be had from this air, as if all the happiness of the boom time decades have somehow impacted on the very ether of the place.
Happiness engulfs her. Only its level surprises. The news about Barbara is truly terrible, the fact of the cancer itself, of course, but more than that the sheer aggression of it, how intent it seems on working its way to the bone, on finishing what it has started. But such details feel oddly separate from her, somehow, like a story accidentally overheard, or news received from far away. On a day such as this, out of season and with the elements given fullest reign, Coney Island feels like the very edge of the world. This place has long since become a sanctuary from the muddy floundering of their first-and-foremost lives, a place of decaying and perhaps deluded joys, yes, but one that grants them a necessary protection. Here, they are afforded the opportunity to be strangers together, strangers who twice a month play at being something more than that, taking advantage of a rare shot at freedom to sit and whisper small-talk, to hold hands and exchange wishes. Such realities as cancer and betrayal and loneliness and pain have no place out here; they simply do not belong. Coney Island has none of Manhattan’s vast claustrophobia. Out here, there is still sky to be had and freedom to be imagined.
“I think about it,” Thomas admits. His eyes fix their direction southwards beyond the brackish jut of Breezy Point and search for clues or answers along the washed-out horizon line. His voice is hoarse, broken, and the words hit in thumps against the taunting breeze. “Of course I do. All the fucking time. How it would be just too damn it all to hell and to get out while I still have a little bit of life left open to me.”
Caitlin slips her free hand inside the lapel of his jacket and seeks by touch his beating heart. Then, she presses her mouth into the snug pocket of his neck, just beneath his right ear, and whisper-sings the teasing prompt: “But you don’t get out.”
He makes a small snorting sound, one familiar to them both from years of practice. The note of amused resignation. “No,” he says, with a heave of breath, “I guess I don’t. But we dream, don’t we? We find a thought that helps to get us through, and then we cling to it like lichens. What would I do if I did pack it all in? Others can do it; they can wake up one morning and just start running, clear across the world, some of them, the way Gauguin did, or Brando, or Marco Polo. Wives, homes, jobs, all shed like a worthless second skin. But I don’t have in me whatever it is that they have. I came out the wrong end of forty years ago, and where I am now is where I will probably always be. I’m sorry, Caitlin, but I’m not a brave man. If I was, I’d have left Barb years ago, and I’d have found a way to talk you into leaving Mike.”
The wind digs in, and when they can no longer take standing still, they take to walking again, just for the sense of movement. Going as far as they can go, out to the very edge of the pier. The boards underfoot are coated deep into their grain with algae a shade of green so dark as to be almost black. The ocean spray dusts their faces and every drawn breath salts their throats and tongues. The sheer enormity of it all is splendid, but also intimidating. All those thousands of miles of surface, all the uncountable leagues of depth. And all the secrets that lay hidden. Caitlin thinks about how it would be to float even six feet beneath the surface, just at that point where the day’s light no longer penetrates and where even the strongest winds fail to reach. Barely a single miserly fathom down, and you would find yourself on top of a whole other world, a world running to a well-ordered cycle of multiplying and feeding and dying. Sink six feet below the surface and there is no more good and bad, and where the tide alone is the only god capable of disturbing the accepted reverie.
She closes her eyes and feels for Thomas’s hand, the cool assurance of his skin, a pulse insinuating from somewhere deep within. They stand here, holding hands and holding onto one another, each thinking thoughts that approached the same subject from different sides, and then finally they turn and walk back down the pier to find a hotel.
Their room is small and intensely white. Everything, the walls, the curtains, the bed sheets, even the last of the evening light that pours in through the large old-fashioned casement windows, shares the same brittle, dreamlike quality. There was a time when the hotels along this stretch of coast were a genuflection of true luxury, but such halcyon days have long since turned to sepia. Box those joys up with bangs and waistcoat fob-watches and little silver cigarillo holders because all that remains is this: perfunctory, basic, clean in an ugly, careworn sort of way, good enough if you happen to measure out your time in hourly lots, but sorely wanting if your desires run to anything more refined. This place, like all these places now, cuts cash deals. Credit cards merely complicate matters and embarrass everyone. Thomas settles the account, trying to avoid eye contact with the elderly, pencil-thin manageress, while Caitlin sits cross-legged in a hulking bottle-green leather armchair beside the lobby’s blazing fireplace.
The few notes of real money buys them time in the company of four walls and a bed. The view, apparently, is complimentary. The room’s narrow window utilizes a second-floor vantage to peer out across a scrub of wasteland towards the ropey upper spindles of a lopsided and long-abandoned fenced-in rollercoaster. Beyond, dissected by the undulating landscape, the top half of a candy-coloured Ferris wheel perches prehistoric and shell-like. The ocean, though unseen from this angle, nonetheless dominates; its relentless abandon feels present in every pore of the fading day.
Thomas removes his overcoat, undoes the two holding buttons of his sports coat and immediately turns his attention to an antiquated-looking thermostat. “See if I can’t get some heat going,” he mutters, as much to himself as to Caitlin. “It’s cold as Dakota in here.”
Caitlin nods. There is a white plastic kettle on the bureau and, alongside, some sachet servings of instant coffee and two plain white porcelain cups upturned on almost-matching saucers. She fills the kettle from a tall glass gourd, taps the switch and sets the water whispering towards a slow boil. Outside, the sky is a moiling skin of cloud polished to alabaster with the coming of a storm. Caitlin turns to find Thomas sitting on the bed. He has already shed his shoes and trousers and is now diligently undoing the buttons of his shirt, his fingertips awkwardly opening a downward path. For a second their eyes meet, and then he returns his attention to what his hands are doing; in that one second she catches, or perhaps chooses to imagine, a bright flash of something pass between them, something with the same brilliant rawness as love. She takes a breath and begins to undress too, kicking out of her shoes, wrestling loose of her grey wool sweater, hurrying to catch up.
The kettle switches itself off with a click. With her blouse partially undone, she tears open two sachets and concocts cheap, bad-tasting coffee. The cups rattle in their saucers as she carries them to the bed. Thomas takes a sip and cannot avoid a wince, but he does not push the cup away. She perches on the edge of the mattress and they drink together, each watching the other in little glances. Not so long ago their hunger to be bodily together would have abided no such trifling distraction as coffee. A great deal has changed in thirteen years and time educates even as it erodes.
After a minute or so, Thomas reaches the dregs of his cup and sets it aside, then stands and finishes undressing. He is meticulous in his movements, carefully folding his trousers and shirt back into their tightly pressed creases and draping them over the frayed back of a puce suede wingchair. Caitlin notes that he has not removed either his shorts or vest. It amuses her that even after the hundreds of intimate occasions they have shared, he remains so boyishly bashful about his body. Age peels away the layers of beauty, and the passage of time has done him few favours. The past five or six years has seen him gain a considerable excess of weight, and his stomach, which had been flat as a board when they’d first started in on one another, has now become bloated and gourd-like. His hairline is receding too, but due to some creative styling the damage has not yet become particularly noticeable. More troubling to both of them is the onset of an angina problem, but for now, at least, it is still in its formative stages and can be easily controlled with a small cocktail of prescribed medication.
“Christ,” he hisses. “This bed could stop a beating heart.” His voice quivers like a slow puncture. He pulls the blankets up over his shoulders and nestles deeply into the soft pillows.
Caitlin smiles to herself, out of duty. She finishes her own coffee and returns cup and saucer back to the bureau, then peels away the last of her clothes. She does not stop at her underwear. To her, these are mere garments, no different from the rest. She has weathered better than Thomas, but this hardly matters. Even back when everything had been fresh and new and exciting, her nakedness had never bothered her. From the first time he had taken her out here, found them a room and set to feasting on her body, she understood how much he cherished her, how much value he placed on every bump and crease and freckle. And even though she is forty-five now and finally beginning to show signs of wear, she knows that his feelings for her have not changed. She was his goddess, he’d told her once, at the high point of some collision or another, and even though the words, delivered in a strangled gasp, sounded like a line from some third or fourth-rate piece of drive-in trash, she could only smile at him and thank him for saying it, thank him with all her might because as corny and sappy as such a sentiment was, she sort of understood where it was coming from and what he was really, truly trying to say. And knowing this, and more to the point having him say it in actual words, filled her with a confidence that has never since diminished, never even once in all their subsequent years together.
In their hired piece of privacy, she unclasps her bra and slips from her panties, taking her time for his benefit, knowing without having to check that he is watching and giving him every chance to be ready for her. The chill of the room wraps around her, the thermostat still sluggish about its duty, and the coldness in the air puckers her small dark nipples and rashes her slender body with gooseflesh. She moves to the bed and slips beneath the blankets. Thomas makes room, giving up the small, warm pocket of space that his body has created.
Twenty minutes later, they give up trying and settle instead for the sort of dozing slumber that still allows room for words. They have been through disappointment together before, not often but often enough, especially these past couple of years, and they have both learned to accept rather than to attribute blame. Caitlin lies on her back with her head resting against Thomas’s right shoulder. The time is just after seven, and another day has somehow drained from her life. From the life of the world. Her skin is clammy with cooling sweat from the exertions of their failed lovemaking, and the white linen bed sheets cling to her feet, thighs and low stomach in a tangle that feels at once sordid and absolutely lovely. She stretches her limbs, pleasuring in their aching tightness, then closes her eyes and swims a little while in that dark place.
“You are my best mistake,” she murmurs, wanting to say something that she could never imagine herself saying anywhere other than here, in this bed, now.
From the rut of his doze, Thomas twitches, a little jiggling motion of his shoulders, driven by a certain heavy kind of breath. Around them, the silence is not total, not with the wind beating the first chill pellets of sleet against the glass, but it is still a kind of silence, or more precisely a kind of stillness. As if the world has become caught in mid-turn. And even when, after an unaccountably few seconds or minutes, he clears his throat and softly begins to speak, the stillness still somehow holds. Words are just words, uttered and spent, but in the bed and around the room, nothing moves, nothing except hearts in their beating.
“You think we are a mistake, then?”
She smiles. “Of course, I do. You’re not trying to tell me that you don’t, are you? Marriage is a sacred bond. The Bible, chapter whatever. Even a bad marriage is sacred. Even a boring one. Maybe a boring one most of all. That makes this a pit stop on the road to hell. Damnation straight ahead. But you know what? That’s okay too, I guess. At least, it is with me.”
“And love?” he asks, obviously enjoying this. “Where does that old number figure in this mess? Do you think they factor that into the equation, like time off for good behavior, or something?”
“Well, whoever it is that calls the shots on this kind of thing.”
“You’re talking about God…”
“God? Well, yeah, I guess so. Or the Gods, if there is more than one of them.”
“You think there might be more than one?”
The music of laughter sings. “I’d hope so, sweetheart,” he says. “For their sake. Otherwise, that’ll be one lonely eternity.”
Still smiling, Caitlin allows the silence to take hold again. This sort of play is a kind of intimacy too. Maybe, after a certain point, a better kind even than that which the physical can offer. But she understands the situation exactly. During all the years of nights when the apartment that she shares with Mike seems too small for who she thinks she is or who she wants to be, she has ample opportunity to consider the many problems and consequences of love. Lying there while her husband slumbers in blissful ignorance, she is cut adrift on her own side of the bed, condemned to stare at the familiar shapes of the room furniture reduced to looming silhouette and at the jet black inch-wide crack of the wardrobe door hanging ajar, hinting at a special kind of otherworldly darkness beyond. And all the while, what she really does is wait forlornly for a sleep that refuses almost out of spite to settle her mind. In that sad marriage bed, she always feels immensely alone. The way a god might feel, she supposes now, if there is indeed only one of them instead of an entire Greek or Celtic plethora. So her understanding of love and what love means, the real, true worth of love, is a hard won and definitive thing, earned through the sweat and blood of hours spent in countless thousands.
“Love?” she murmurs softly. “No, Tom. I’m afraid that love is just the excuse we use. You know, the story that we make up to justify all the rotten things we do.”
This stillness soothes the body in the way that the wind at the window soothes the mind. Even the sheets, worn tawdry by so many visiting lovers, feel good against her skin. But when she opens her eyes again, everything has changed. A proper and thorough darkness has stolen in. She sits up in the bed, sighs, and rakes the fingers of both hands back through her hair.
The room has taken on a midnight feel. She gets up and moves to the window, but there is little to see beyond suggested shapes. Her mind conjures up an image of the sea, the night surf breaking over the luminescent strand, but this is an imagining, not a memory. She draws the curtains and switches on one of the two bedside lamps. Not because she needs light to see her way into her clothes, but because it is the traditional closing act of their trysts. The lamp’s bulb flares brilliantly for a moment, then plunges with a soft pop back into darkness. In the bed, Thomas sits up and switches on the other lamp, the one on his left. Then, he packs some pillows behind his head and lies back to watch her.
“Couldn’t you come back to bed?” he asks, as she pulls her panties up over her slim thighs and forefingers her way to comfort in the crotch area. Pearl lace; an anniversary gift from Mike. Catalogue-bought, of course.
“Barb’s in overnight. They need to insert a morphine line. You can tell Mike you had to work late. An audit that ran long, or something.”
Can’t they just stay a little while longer? After all, the room is paid for until tomorrow. This, too, is tradition between them, his pleading, her pragmatic no. It is mere lip-service anyway.
“Keep an eye on the time,” she tells him. She sounds tired.
They have often spoken of running away, of dropping everything, every duty and burden, and just skipping out. Daydream stuff, setting up home in some small Maine town, say, or in the Midwest, a perfect little nest for two migrating birds. But it is talk, nothing more. He has never once put a solid offer on the table. And she herself is not blameless. Few men will take a leap of faith unless they are certain beyond doubt that the waiting net will support their weight.
Caitlin pulls up her skirt and clasps it at her hip. She dallies with her bra, straightening out the straps. She knows that if she were to put him to the test, to yield to his request even for a moment, he would crumble like stale cake. Just the same, she is tempted to do it, just to trigger a flush of upset into his restfulness. But that would cause his knots to tighten all over again, and she would have to spend the next ten or twenty minutes listening to his mumbled backtracking excuses. Something important would suddenly surface, something that absolutely has to be done tonight, a phone call to a client or paperwork that just will not wait. She sees all the way through him, which is probably why they work so well together. Between them, a secret has never stood a chance. Dreams are fine in their place, but acceptance is the key to survival. Some people see a glass as half full, others see it as half empty. But there is a third group, a small, almost unnoticeable percentage, who want nothing more than the opportunity to quench their burning thirsts.
She makes more coffee. The cups are dirty now which, actually, seems rather fitting. Partially dressed, she crawls back beneath the sheets. They are no longer the people they had once been. Time has changed them. And yet, they fit together more easily now. In their case, familiarity has bred contentment. A cup of coffee holds value now, in a way that would have been impossible back when they were younger and still in need of greater thrills. There are all sorts of ways of making love, and no time that they spend together ever feels wasted. Caitlin drinks her coffee, with her shoulder resting lovingly against Thomas’s arm. When it is gone, she leans across and kisses him in a way that is utterly open only because it is so devoid of expectation. He lowers his own cup and returns her kiss with interest, smiling against her mouth.
Down at the station, the train is already at the platform.
They board quickly so as to escape the worst of the weather, which the darkness has somehow worsened. The wind is hard, dashed with cold snarls of sleet. Caitlin glimpses her reflection in a lit-up window and makes a pass at patting down her hair, but the task is a mammoth one.
A few passengers are already ensconced in the second carriage from the rear. They glance up, but only an instant, then slump back down into the torpor of old paperbacks and badly-folded newspapers. Thomas leads the way, keeping his stride detached. He surveys the carriage and elects a single seat that backs onto the pull of the train. There is not so much as a word or even a glance of goodbye.
For a moment, Caitlin stands there, almost at his shoulder, holding tightly to a handrail. Then, mindlessly obedient to ancient instructions, she wanders up the aisle and pushes through the door. The next carriage seems more brightly lit. She pauses at the entrance, then drops down into the first available window seat and settles herself for the long ride back to Manhattan.
The totality of the outer dark presses against the window, and the carriage’s illuminated glare etches ghostly, washed-out portraits of her past and future selves across the dust-encrusted glass. She stares until she has seen too much and then she lowers her eyes.
She has long since given up asking why they cannot sit together on a train ride. Thomas is who he is. It is an answer, of sorts. But that is all.
As part of his regular routine, he stays on at the office until after five, even on the days when they are not scheduled to meet. More by instinct than conscience, he utilizes these extra minutes with tying up loose ends and signing off on things that can comfortably wait another day, or longer if needs be. He is a man who does not believe in waste. In a working environment, fastidiousness is an enviable and well-rewarded character trait, but it is one that serves equally well or even better in real life, out in a world that is even more cutthroat and merciless in its embrace. He and Caitlin work in the same building, yes, but their respective offices stand some four floors apart and their paths have no job-related reasons at all for ever crossing. On the very rare occasions that they do happen to pass one another in a corridor, each is careful in showing ambivalence towards the other’s existence. A nod is okay, and acceptable. Even a fleeting smile and a casually uttered, “good morning” or “good afternoon.” But no lingering sideways looks, no conspiratorial body language. Because little slips can arouse suspicion. Safety in all things. Secure your footing and cover your tracks. Though all the years she has known him, he remains unwavering in these beliefs. And it is precisely these efforts at secrecy, his fortunes worth of attention spent on detail, which have kept them safe and undiscovered through all the years of their affair.
“You just don’t see the menace,” he has told her, often. “One slip and everything we have will come apart like cobweb.” And she always nods and cedes the ground to him, and does not bother to mention that actually a cobweb is not so weak, that in fact, strand for strand, it has quite astonishing tensile strength.
She owns two photographs of him, neither of which he knows about. She keeps them in a shoebox in the top of her wardrobe, mixed in with decades of holiday snaps and various little souvenir trinkets. They are neither hidden nor displayed, which, she knows, is the best way to hide anything. She knows them by heart, every shade and detail. Both were taken right here in Coney Island and date from very early on in their relationship, probably late in the season of their second or third summer. Nothing special, just a couple of dollar-a-pop boardwalk Polaroid snaps that she coaxed a vendor into taking.
The first picture shows the two of them together, walking arm in arm; the second captures Thomas alone. He is wearing navy Bermudas and a short-sleeved cotton shirt, white with red trim, open to mid-chest. She has on a light blue flower-patterned summer dress with yellow flecks and shoulder straps. She looks about thirty in age, which puts him knocking on the door of forty, but the sun is shining and time has washed away enough of the reality to give them almost an aura of youth. He looks strong and fit, with the best kind of swarthy, brooding good looks. Like a young Brando, maybe, except not quite so pretty-boy. Beside him, as close as close can get without crossing a line into bawdy, she is young and slim and girlishly pretty, her smile the satisfaction-guaranteed genuine article. The miracle, if miracles really do happen, is having a photographer here to record the scene, surely one of time’s proudest crescendos, for posterity. In the instant that the trained lens snatches its image, she is looking for the camera and almost finding it, but Thomas is halfway into a profile pose, with his strong chin slightly raised and a smile doing a remarkable impression of handsome across his face. The 6x4 impression they create is one of a perfect, happy couple. Which in many respects is true.
By contrast, the second picture, which is shot mere seconds later, captures a portrait of heightened grief. It is the dead weight freefall after the impossible high. Between that first snap and the second, Caitlin, desperate to have a snap of her man alone and unhindered, plays out a little connivance, and slips out of frame on the impetuous excuse of wanting to check out a stall or to purchase a soft drink or an ice cream. The result lends a clear sense of imbalance to the composition, some vital enormity missing from the shot. Her, of course. And alone, cut loose, the Thomas of ten years back is caught at the high point of a rightwards spill, his strong upper body leaning into too hard a tilt, as though his leaning support has been snatched away, suddenly and without warning. His expression has shifted too; the youthful assurance is gone, replaced by a kind of middle-aged dread. The sun is still shining and the place itself has hardly changed at all in a minute’s worth of steps, but what dominates is this overwhelming sense of loss, a suggestion of utter abandonment. In the span of sixty seconds, ten whole years feel lost. This second picture, while nothing like what she has anticipated, is in fact exactly what she wants.
She closes her eyes, and keeps them closed until she feels the first pull of the train’s engine. Then a shudder sets them in motion, all of them, and puts them in a stately hurtle back in the direction of the place where they properly belong. Wherever that is. She listens to the noise, the soothing piston shots of metal and motion, and decides with a sigh that, actually, it is okay to be going home, back to the world as she knows it, a world full of work and full, too, of Mike with all his tedious love, Barb and her cancerous fears, take-out meals, and wines from far away. Full of details. These last few hours have been lovely and sweet, but in truth they are little more than daydream material, a beautiful piece of fantasy in glass slippers. And a heart needs more than dreams to go on beating.
Abruptly, a station sign presses into her vision, two fleeting words, black on white: Coney Island. And with the sign comes a long-forgotten snatch of song, some little barbershop ditty, peanut-butter heavy on the harmonies. Smiling, she hums along to the imagined melody, her breath rolling and tumbling, while the movement of the train keeps up the steady beat.