The two questions went off in his mind like flash-bang grenades.
Even as the questions reverberated, urgent for an answer, he held them in suspension and zig-zagged across four lanes of Los Angeles traffic, down a curving exit ramp, under a yellow traffic light and into the outer acreage of a parking lot. He let the Tesla brake itself, coasting to a stop beside an empty shopping cart under a lamppost just as its dusk-triggered sodium light flickered on.
Staring ahead into nothing and concentrating inwardly, the air-conditioning of the car humming quietly, Alexander Selkirk assembled events from forty years ago. The braided strands of his memories were like color-coded wiring in a bomb built with forgotten technology. He gentled apart each spring-loaded scene, intending to put the chaos of memories in order, to see them whole, and answer the questions.
It was 1983, the day before New Year’s Eve. He was one of five guys inside the limousine. Takehito, whose obsession with Akira Kurosawa had propelled him from Okinowa to a partial scholarship at NYU film school, drove, having taken the night off from chauffeuring Japanese businessmen around Manhattan as they bought up real estate and drank themselves quadriplegic inside private karaoke bars.
They were in a limousine, but if the five of them had emptied their wallets and pockets there would not have been more than $60. Yet there were snorts of cocaine for each, except Tak, who did not drink or take drugs, content with the Marlboro cigarettes he chain-smoked.
Robert, the wild man from Ireland with bleached-white hair, one earring, and two years of kickboxing lessons was in the front passenger seat, only passing the quart bottle of cheap bourbon when asked to. Michael and John, previously roommates in art school, and now roommates with Robert in a dusty wood and brick loft near the Manhattan tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, competed to roll the thinnest straightest joint, then lit and passed their slender creations around. They chased the harsh smoke with cold bottles of Asahi beer taken from the car’s refrigerator even though Tak told them not to.
Alexander barely remembered now how they had crashed a party in a pre-war apartment on the upper west side while Tak stayed in the limo, double-parked, smoldering cigarettes. John told the woman answering the door the name of someone who knew someone who knew about the party as the other three slipped past her. Alexander vaguely recalled dim light and soft jazz Christmas carols, a heavily decorated drooping Christmas tree, a garishly painted three-foot-high crèche in the huge non-working fireplace.
Taking it all in, Robert pointed at each figure and stage-whispered, “Jay-sus! Mary! And Jo-seph!”
“This is a morgue,” John said. “Let’s leave.”
Michael said, “Maybe break something first.”
Instead, they approached a dozen people who were seated in a ring of chairs and sofas, intent on their communal conversation, ignoring the new arrivals. And Robert performed his party trick of taking a series of rapid deep gulps of air and releasing a reverberant, operatic belch. With the conversation stopped and everyone’s attention on him, Robert went into character as a cartoon Irishman.
“Aye we just dropped by to wish a Happy New Year to each and every one of ya good people! And have yourselves a merry little bourgeois life while you’re at it! Oh, now, don’t be bothering getting up. We’ll be seeing ourselves out.”
Only when they were loping down the wide marble stairs did Alexander notice that Michael now cradled a very large cut-glass bottle of cognac in the crook of his arm.
“Hey!” called a man from the top of the stairs.
“Fuck off!” they yelled in unison.
No one came after them.
Recalling the jumbled scenes from so long ago was like painting with watercolors in the dark. Alexander remembered a montage of bare trees, empty benches, and dim street lamps in Central Park; glinting views of the black Hudson disrupted by decrepit wharfs and hulking ships. Robert would turn the music up so loud the tinted windows of the heavy car vibrated, and Tak, waiting until the song ended, would turn down the volume.
When Alexander suggested they drive across Brooklyn Bridge Robert approved, “Fuck yeah! Do what he says, Tak. That’s why we call him Alexander the Great. Loaded with fecking great ideas he is.”
When they reached the Brooklyn side, they just turned around and drove back over the span to Manhattan.
It was past two in the morning when they were double parked on first Avenue near Fourth or Fifth street in the East Village. Robert sat in the window of the front passenger’s door, and John sat in the window of the back driver-side door. One minute they competed to coax attractive women into conversations, and possibly into the limo. The next minute they targeted other passersby with riffed insults. Deeply drunk, Alexander managed to sit in the open window of the back right seat, leaning heavily on the damp roof of the car. He said nothing, but watched, fascinated, as Robert or John yelled at passersby, and puffs of white mist formed in the cold air near their mouths, like comic book speech balloons.
“You with the manky mohawk. It’s almost nineteen-eighty-four! Get a suit and get a job or go on back home to O-hi-o, why don’t ya? Go wank to your old Clash records in your sister’s bedroom with her panties on your face, why don’t ya?”
The punker sprinted from the sidewalk to the back of the limo and pounded both palms on the wide trunk of the car, like he was beating a drum.
Tak blared the car’s horn and swore in Japanese at the punk.
The punker kept slapping the trunk and yelled, “I’m fucking a-live!” I’m fucking a-live!”
“Confuckinggratulations!” Robert yelled. “Now get your jizzy hands off of my car!”
As if he had rehearsed for weeks to perfect each move, Alexander slid from the window into the limo, grabbed a near-empty bottle of Ashai, pushed open his door to block the punker, and fisted a wad of the punker’s shirt with his left hand, using the momentum to half-pull himself up to standing. Even as Alexander noted in a blur of impressions—that he was four inches taller than the punker; that the face he looked down on was beaming a friendly crooked-toothed smile, not the expected anger and rage; that despite the cold, the punker was out on the streets wearing only a tee-shirt—his right arm was swinging the beer bottle.
Across the distance of forty years, Alexander heard the dull tunk as the bottle struck the punker’s skull but did not break, bouncing from his grip, spinning end-over-end above the street, its brown glass glinting in the ambient light.
Robert and John yelled, “Alex, get in the car! Get in the car!”
The bottle shattered in the street and a passing taxi blared its horn even as the punker’s knees tremored and he doubled over at the waist as if he had been punched in his gut, not hit in the head. The smile gone, his eyes wide in shock, he looked up at Alexander and asked, “What you do that for?”
Michael pulled Alexander into the backseat of the limo. Tak locked all the doors with a master switch and accelerated through the red light while screaming at them in a slurry of Japanese and English. On 14th street he pulled over, kicked them out of the limo, and drove away.
They huddled on the sidewalk, hands in pockets. The damp air was saturated with a rotting stench from three overflowing dumpsters chained to the security gates of a closed grocery store.
John said, “That was surreal.”
Michael said, “The bottle didn’t break! It bounced right off his head!”
Robert said, “Alexander the Great! Full of the surprises you are!” He paused, announced, “It stinks here.” Then started walking toward Second Avenue. “I say we hit the Ukraine. Best looking women in all of North America in that club.”
Sitting in the quietly humming car forty years in the future, Alexander’s mind replayed the punker’s question over and over, “What you do that for?”
And still, he had no reason, no explanation, no answer.
Downstairs was a restaurant serving borscht and blini during the day. The upstairs was a nightclub on the weekends. It was dark and the painfully loud music made the wood floors throb and the mirrored walls shiver. Alexander took each step carefully, feeling as if he was walking on a revolving carousel.
They did rounds of vodka shots until Michael’s turn, when he came back empty-handed and yelled in each of their ears, “They cut us off!”
Something whistled past the back of Alexander’s head. Even as he flinched, raising his hand in sluggish reaction to protect himself, the sheet of mirror on the wall beside them exploded. Shards of glass sprayed up, out, and down, the shattering muted under the thumping music. There was pushing shoving and punches landing on his shoulders and back. He threw blind punches, some of them landing, but it was like fighting inside a cyclone. He spotted Robert trying to make a round house kick.
Then Alexander was on the stairs, a dozen voices, some of them women, yelling, a crush of bodies pushing him down but also keeping him from falling. Outside on the sidewalk, his toxin-soaked brain could not make his legs, his body, do anything more than lurch and stumble along the sidewalk. His apartment was only six blocks away, straight down Second Avenue, but he went more than a block in the wrong direction before realizing it. The carousel spun faster, its movement lurching him side-to-side, as if he were walking against the direction of its spinning.
He had the clear thought, “I’ll get mugged!” He fumbled to take what cash he had out of his wallet, to put the money in his jacket pocket, the easier to surrender, and keep his driver’s license and bank card from being taken. But he dropped the cash on the sidewalk. When he bent to collect the money the city inverted, sky at his feet, sidewalk at his head.
He came back to consciousness slumped against his apartment door, with no memory of entering the building or going up the five flights of stairs. Again and again, Alexander tried to fit the key into the lock of the door. His hand and vision jerked wildly, independent of each other, unable to align the metal key with the tiny black zig-zag cut of the keyhole.
He banged on his own locked door as if there were someone inside to open it. Minutes later, or an hour later, he came to again. Kneeling with the keyhole at eye level, he used both hands to steady and insert and turn the key, gasping when the door clicked opened. Using his head to push open the door, he crawled to the bathroom, draped himself over the toilet, and heaved up bile.
Around noon the next day, Alexander walked the reverse of his drunken stumbling course, his legs and arms weak, vision drained of color, hearing muted. Knowing it was irrational, he still looked for the money he dropped hours earlier, as if it might be there on the sidewalk. He passed the Ukraine club, its ground floor restaurant filled with customers, the sound of a vacuum cleaner coming from the opened windows of the second floor. At the Stage restaurant near St. Marks, he took the only open stool at the counter and ordered eggs, sausages, toast, coffee. He felt no appetite, but the hot coffee was stunning, his vision sharpened and his hearing unmuted. When the plate of food was put in front of him, he ate ravenously.
He walked briskly back to his apartment, enjoying the bright day and cold air. But the moment he closed the door, he was depleted, exhausted, disgusted. For the next nine hours he lay in bed under the two open windows, liking the cold, liking the noises of the city like background music. He read chapters of The Great Bridge. Then put the book aside, and read, for the third time, the opening chapters of Les Misérables. For long stretches he stared into the whorls of the plaster ceiling, or the unframed prints of Vermeer’s, Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Hopper’s, The Lee Shore, thumbtacked into the white plaster walls.
He languidly moved his gaze around the contents of the small apartment, looking intently but empty of thoughts, simply noting each item like an anthropologist from another planet. The paperback and hard cover books stacked on a splintery plank supported by a cinder block at each end. Resting on top of the books was a stuffed fox, frozen in motion with one fore paw raised, as if it had been shot while sprinting across a field after a rabbit. Now its feet were forever pinned to a faux rock of sculpted brown urethane.
When he was seventeen, he traded a dime bag of marijuana and a silver chamber pipe for the fox. It traveled from a bedroom in his parent’s home, to a dorm room in Maine, to an apartment in Rhode Island he had shared with a girlfriend, to a cheap room in New Haven, and finally, it rode on the train with him to Manhattan, and up the five flights of stairs to be there, perched on the row of books, its brown-black glass eyes staring at Alexander each night as he slept.
Near the bed, facing the two windows was a hardback wood chair and a flimsy folding green card table, it’s square padded-vinyl surface just large enough to carry the heavy mechanical contraption of a manual typewriter, an opened ream of blank paper at its left, and a shorter stack of typed pages at its right. Without sitting up, he looked at the pieces of sky he could see from the two north-facing windows.
It was dusk when he got out of bed, climbed through the right window onto the fire escape, and went up to the roof. Sharply syncopated Puerto Rican music came from two different sources, yet the bass, timbales, horns, and even the voices singing words he could not understand, rather than cancel each other out into noise, somehow joined to make a foundation for all the other voices and sounds of the city. As the night darkened and the lights of the city brightened, he faced midtown, where the top third of the Empire State Building glowed from green and red flood lights. When he turned to face downtown, across an ocean of brick tenements, like two exclamation marks, or like the twin elevator shafts they were mocked for being, he saw the World Trade Center towers. He could only see a section of the white-lighted catenary curves of cables on the Brooklyn Bridge, the bridge that Tak drove them over last night, and which he just read was completed in 1883, a hundred years ago.
The phone in his apartment rang, but he stayed on the roof. He only went down the fire escape and through the open window of his apartment when it was fully night. The message on the answering machine was from his former girlfriend. She was having a New Year’s Eve party. Friends from his home town would be there. He should come.
He turned on the radio, a mellifluous voice, the kind a salesman would dream of possessing, announced the program, Saturday with Sinatra. The voice ingratiatingly introduced Sinatra singing Gershwin, Sinatra singing Berlin, Sinatra singing Rogers and Hart, but thankfully, not Rogers and Hammerstein.
At eleven o’clock, he suddenly knew he would go berserk if he spent one minute more in the apartment. He grabbed his coat and his empty wallet. He grabbed a fistful of quarters and other coins from a clear glass jar that once held pickles the size of dildos. He went to the stuffed fox perched on the row of books and lifted it. From a hole he cut into the faux rock base, and where he would hide his marijuana from his parents, he extracted his emergency fund, three battered ten-dollar bills. He bounded down the five flights of stairs, his sneakers tapping a syncopated rhythm on the linoleum. Slamming out the door, his first breath of cold night air hit his heart like a wave of amphetamine.
He got off the nearly empty bus at City Hall, saw a restaurant, a gyros place, that was open, and used coins to pay for a cup of black coffee, probably brewed a dozen hours earlier. He took three bitter sips from the blue and white paper cup with nonsensical Greek statues framing the message, We Are Happy to Serve You, then dropped it in an overflowing trash can as he stepped onto the wood-planked promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge.
From the exact center of the bridge, at the exact stroke of midnight, he watched fireworks launched from Central Park bursting apart in showers of colors made quiet by the distance, and the ever-present, closer, sounds of the city.
“Happy New Year!”
He turned to a woman in a peacoat with the collar turned up, a sailor’s watch cap pulled low.
“Would you like some of my champagne?” she asked him. “I promise I have no germs.”
Everyone has germs, he thought. She offered the bottle to him, her hands ungloved despite the cold.
He took the bottle and drank.
“Actually, everyone has germs,” she said.
He almost laughed aloud, barely keeping from spluttering the champagne.
“But I’ve nothing serious. I’m very healthy.”
“It tastes very good,” he said. “Thank you.”
He handed the bottle to her.
“I looked around,” she said. “I thought it would be crowded but there’s only a few people here.” She took a sip from the bottle. “You and I seem to be the only ones not in a couple or a group. I wanted to share. The wine. New Years.”
“It’s good champagne,” he said.
“Way better than I can afford,” she said.
They watched the fireworks, talked, passing the bottle back and forth.
They quickly established credentials; Alexander, 26; Nadya, 27; he worked a dead-end job in a printing plant, her degree in physics won her an unpaid part-time job at the Hayden planetarium that she had to wait tables to afford; both were single, between relationships; both had escaped from small towns in different states, and they had gone to the city, because where else would they want to be? She was dog-sitting for friends who had an apartment nearby. As midnight approached, like him, she was seized by the urge to be outside. Her friends left the bottle of champagne for her. “This amazing bridge was right outside their window! I practically ran all the way here.”
“Without the dog,” he said.
“He would have slowed me down.”
Neither spoke during the finale of the fireworks. In the quiet that followed she said, “And now we part?”
“There’s this party I don’t want to go to,” he said.
“A party you don’t want to go to?” But he could see the white of her teeth as she smiled.
“Play your cards right,” he said. “Our second date I’ll take you with me to the dentist.”
She would go, but she needed to change clothes.
“I’ll walk there with you and wait outside while you change,” Alexander said.
“That won’t be necessary. The dog is big.” Nadya took the bottle from him, drank, then passed it back. “By the way, if the dog doesn’t like you, I’m not going.”
“What kind of dog is it?”
The apartment was large, and expensively, carefully, furnished. He remembered thinking, whoever lives here can afford that champagne.
The dog, as promised, was big. An unneutered male standard poodle, its head uncomfortably on a level with Alexander’s belly, it kept trying to push its snout down into his crotch.
She came out from the bedroom wearing a loose ivory-colored knitted sweater, tight black slacks and short black boots.
“You have orange hair,” he said.
“You’re keenly observant. Although, most would say auburn, not orange.”
He stepped closer to her. “Green eyes.”
“As do you.”
“Actually, hazel,” he said. “Sometimes green, sometimes brown.”
“Depending on mood?”
“There,” he pointed, ignoring her question. “On your cheeks, just under your eyes.”
“Is that a deal breaker?”
He stepped back. “You are…very… good looking.”
She tilted her head, folded her arms under her breasts, and frowned. “You sound surprised.”
“Well, this should be interesting.” She lifted the peacoat from where she had left it draped over a leather sofa. “I’m about to go to a party where I don’t know anyone, in the company of a very shallow, shifty-eyed man.”
But he noted that her face brightened and one corner of her mouth twisted upward.
She pulled on the bulky peacoat, buttoned it up, turned its collar up, then put on a green felt beret, tilting it low, covering most of her hair. She walked past him and opened the door.
As Alexander turned to follow her, he smoothly raised his knee to block the dog making another thrust toward his crotch.
The taxi driver reeked of cigar and cumin, and said nothing when Alexander gave him the address, “Fourteenth Street and First Avenue.” He pulled into traffic, steering with one hand and using the other to turn up the volume of the 24-hour radio station that played popular music from the rapidly fading past, the same station that played Saturday with Sinatra.
When a song Alexander knew came on but he didn’t quite recognize the singer, he guessed, “Fred Astaire?”
“You’re right. I think it is!” Nadya said. “I love Fred Astaire. And Gershwin. George and Ira.” She began softly singing along with the radio, while removing her beret and pushing it in a coat pocket.
The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off-key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
Not certain of the lyrics, speaking more than singing the words, Alexander followed Nadya’s lead.
We may never, never meet again
On this bumpy road to love
Still I’ll always, always keep the memory of…
As they got out of the taxi the driver pointed his unlit cigar at them and said, “That was nice. Never would’ve thought people young as youse two would know any good songs.”
After four decades, all Alexander could recall of the party was a moment when he stood beside the chair she sat on, while around them people far past drunk behaved stupidly. They talked about writing and writers and books they liked and he asked her, “Have you ever listened closely to how everyone talks in real life?” He waved an arm to take in the partyers around them. “This life? Dialogue, conversation, it’s all in fragments. But you. You speak in complete sentences. That’s…out of the ordinary.”
She held his gaze, smiling, and that one corner of her mouth twisted up. “Yes, comma, I am extraordinary.”
They slow walked to Second Avenue, with the stated intention of hailing a taxi for her. But they turned down the avenue, losing themselves and finding each other in unhurried but excited trading of scenes from their lives, key accidents, changes in direction, how cause and effect could only truly be seen when looking back. She had an Irish surname, but when they were passing the Ukraine Club, she mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Ukrainian and had an apartment on First Avenue, only a few blocks away.
“Ah,” he said. “Hence, Nadya.”
Two blocks later they stepped into a nearly empty bar, the walls painted black and red. The recorded music in the bar was the same they would have heard any night just blocks away at CBGB or Mudd, but the volume was low. They sat across from each other in a booth, ordered martinis from a waitress with blunt-cut dyed-black hair, a triple nose ring, and black and red eye makeup that matched the walls.
Their conversation was fluent, taking unexpected but satisfying turns, and across all the years, Alexander recalled the succession of subtle drops in his stomach as she said one thing after another that harmonized his own thoughts, his own experiences. Each time he glanced away, glancing out the dark windows or at the few others in the bar, when his sight came back on her, he felt home.
He tried to remember what she said, how she explained to him that life seemed to her a string of accidental meetings, one after another. “Birth is like the Big Bang and we’re all exploding outward like planets, or meteors, shooting through empty space.”
She sipped her martini and he noted how the wet glass made her lips glisten. “But no one travels in straight lines. And besides, space is definitely not empty.”
She said we’re continually buffeted, acted on by outside forces. Random collisions or near misses send us careening in new directions. Sometimes we come close enough, slowly enough, to other people that we may fall into a mutual orbit. It might last ten years. Or three seconds.
“Well,” he interrupted. “Here’s to our four hours.”
They touched glasses. “And counting,” she said.
They had talked about relationships. “You meet, you orbit each other, and then like you were magnets and suddenly the poles reversed, you go shooting off in different directions,” she said. But she also said at the end of each relationship we gain speed. “Like when the astronauts went to the moon and its gravitational field made it easy to stay in orbit. But when they needed to go, to get home, they used that same gravitational energy to accelerate, to slingshot themselves away!”
It was nearing five in the morning when she asked the waitress for a fresh napkin, not wet from their drinks. She wrote her phone number on the edge of the square paper and handed it to him.
Alexander hailed a taxi right outside the bar. He opened the door for her and for a moment they paused, the world spinning around them. When they kissed, it was slow, it was easy, and it was unlike anything he ever experienced.
“Call me when you wake up,” she said.
He closed the door, the taxi pulled away, turned the next corner, and was gone.
Alexander Selkirk sat inside the electric car in the parking lot under the harsh light of the sodium lamp. He now held in his mind all the interlocked, kinetic memories, like seeing a story woven in a tapestry hung in a museum, or a brightly painted mural on the side of a building.
He asked aloud the question, the second of the four decades-long repressed questions that went off in his mind like flash-bang grenades.
“Why didn’t I call her?”