Before We Were Strangers
1. Do You Still Think of Me?
Life was passing me by at high speed as I sat back with my feet up, rejecting change, ignoring the world, shrugging off anything that threatened to have meaning or relevance. I categorically disagreed with all things current. I despised the use of emojis, the word meta, and people who talked on their phones in line. Don’t even get me started on gentrification. There were twenty-one Starbucks within a three-block radius of the building I worked in. Recording studios, film labs, and record stores were dying, if not already vacant corpses turned cupcake shops or blow-dry bars. They had stopped playing music videos on MTV and had banned smoking in bars. I didn’t recognize New York anymore.
These are the things I pondered while sitting in my four-by-four cubicle at National Geographic. It hadn’t felt National or Geographic since I had taken a desk job there a few years before. I had come out of the field, where I had seen everything, and I went into a hole, where I saw
nothing. I was in the middle of the city I loved, back in her arms again, but we were strangers. I was still hanging on to the past and I didn’t know why.
Scott smacked me square on the back. “Hey, buddy. Brooklyn for lunch?”
“Why so far?” I was sitting at my desk, fidgeting with the battery in my phone.
“There’s a pizza place I want you to try, Ciccio’s. You heard of it?”
“We can get good pizza on Fifth.”
“No, you have to try this place, Matt. It’s phenomenal.”
“What’s phenomenal, the pizza or the staff?” Since my divorce a few years ago, Scott—boss, friend, and eternal bachelor—had high hopes that I’d become his permanent wingman. It was impossible to talk him out of anything, especially when it involved women and food.
“You got me. You have to see this girl. We’ll call it a work meeting. I’ll put it on the company card.” Scott was the type who talked about women a lot and about porn even more. He was severely out of touch with reality.
“I’m sure this qualifies as sexual harassment somewhere.”
He leaned against the top of the cubicle partition. He had a nice-looking face and was always smiling, but if you didn’t see him for a week, you’d forget what he looked like.
“We’ll take the subway.”
“Hey, guys.” My ex-wife walked by, sipping a cup of coffee.
I ignored her. “Hey, Liz,” Scott said and then stared at her ass as she walked away. He turned to me. “Is it weird to work with her and Brad?”
“I’ve always worked with her and Brad.”
“Yeah, but she was your wife and now she’s Brad’s wife.”
“I honestly don’t care anymore.” I stood up and grabbed my jacket.
“That’s a good sign. I believe you. That’s how I know you’re ready for some strange.” I often ignored these types of comments from Scott.
“I need to stop by Verizon first and get a new battery,” I said, waving my phone.
“What is that?”
“A cell phone. Pretty sure you’ve seen one before.”
“First of all, no one says ‘cell phone’ anymore. Second, that’s not a phone; that’s an artifact. We should ship it to the Smithsonian and get you an iPhone.”
On the way out, we passed Kitty, the coffee cart girl. “Hello, gentlemen.”
I smiled. “Kitty.” She blushed.
Scott said nothing until we got into the elevator. “You should tap that. She totally wants you.”
“She’s a child.”
“She’s a college graduate. I hired her.”
“Not my type. Her name is Kitty.”
“All right, now you’re just being mean.” He seemed minimally offended on Kitty’s behalf.
“I’m fine. Why is it everyone’s mission in life to set me up? I’m fine.”
“Guys don’t have clocks.”
“Not compared to Kitty.”
The elevator doors opened and we stepped into the lobby. A giant print of one of my photos ran the length of a wall.
“See that, Matt? That gets women wet.”
“It’s a picture of an Iraqi child holding an automatic weapon.”
“The Pulitzer you got for it, genius, not the picture.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “That was a good year for you.”
“Yeah, it was. Professionally, anyway.”
“I’m telling you, you have to use that to your advantage. You have a moderate amount of celebrity because of that photo. It’s worked in my favor.”
“How did it work for you, exactly?”
“I might’ve borrowed your name for a night. Once or twice.”
I laughed. “That’s disgraceful, man.”
“Kitty’s into you. You should give that little hottie what she wants. You know there’re rumors about her.”
“Even more reason to stay away.”
“No, good rumors. Like she’s crazy. A little animal.”
“And that’s good how?”
We made our way outside and headed for the subway station on West 57th to catch the F train. Midtown is always congested at that hour, but we were nearing the end of winter. The sun beating down between the buildings drew even more people out onto the street. I weaved in and out of the masses while Scott trailed me.
Right before we reached the station entrance he spoke loudly from behind.
“She’d probably be into anal.”
I stopped and faced him at the top of the steps going
down. “Scott, this conversation is wrong in so many ways. Let’s just end it here, okay?”
“I’m your boss.”
“Exactly.” I trotted down the steps toward the turnstiles.
There was an old woman playing a violin at the bottom of the steps. Her clothes were dingy and her hair was a gray, matted mess. The strings on her bow were hanging off, like floating foxtails, but she was playing Brahms flawlessly. When I threw five bucks in her case, she smiled. Scott shook his head and pulled me along.
“I’m trying to keep you happy and productive, Matt.”
I swiped my Metro card. “Give me a raise. That will keep me happy and productive.”
The station was crowded. A train was pulling up, but we were stuck behind a huge group of people who were pushing toward the front like they had somewhere important to be. Scott was content to hang back and stare at a woman who had her back toward us. She stood near the edge of the platform, rocking from heel to toe, balancing on the thick yellow line. There was something striking about her.
Scott elbowed me and then waggled his eyebrows and mouthed “nice ass.” I wanted to punch him in the neck.
The more I looked at the woman, the more I felt drawn to her. She had one thick blonde braid running down her back. Her hands were shoved into the pockets of her black coat, and it occurred to me that, like a child, she was teetering joyously to the rhythm of the violin echoing against the station walls.
When the train finally pulled up, she let people rush past her and then stepped in at the last second. Scott and I stood on the yellow line, waiting for the next, less-crowded
train. Just as the train doors closed, she turned around. Our eyes locked.
I blinked. Holy shit.
She pressed her hand to the glass and mouthed, “Matt?” but the train was pulling away.
Without thinking about it, I ran. I ran like a crazy person to the end of the platform, my hand outstretched, willing the train to stop, my eyes never leaving hers. And when I ran out of platform, I watched the train fly into the darkness until she was gone.
When Scott caught up to me, he looked at me cautiously. “Whoa, man. What was that about? You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Not a ghost. Grace.”
I was stunned, staring into the void that had swallowed her. “A girl I used to know.”
“What, like the one who got away?” Scott asked.
“Something like that.”
“I had one of those. Janie Bowers, first girl to give me a blowie. I beat it to that image until I was, like, thirty.”
I ignored him. All I could think about was Grace.
Scott went on. “She was a cheerleader. Hung around my high school lacrosse team. They all called her the Therapist. I didn’t know why. I thought she was gonna be my girlfriend after that blowie.”
“No, not like that,” I said. “Grace and I dated in college, right before I met Elizabeth.”
“Oh, like that. Well, she looked good. Maybe you should try to get in touch with her.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, but thought there’s no way she’d still be single.
I LET BRODY, the seventeen year-old salesperson at Verizon, talk me into the newest iPhone. It actually costs eight dollars less a month to have a newer phone. Nothing in this world made sense to me anymore. I was distracted while signing the documents because the image of Grace, on the train, floating off into the darkness, had been running on a constant loop in my mind since we had left the station.
Over pizza, Scott showed me how to play Angry Birds. I thought that was a big step toward overcoming my technology phobia. The girl Scott was hoping to see wasn’t working so we ate our pizza and headed back to the office.
Once I was back at my cubicle, I Googled Grace’s name in every possible variation—first, middle, and last names; first and last names; middle and last names—with no luck. How was this possible? What kind of life was she leading that kept her completely off the internet?
I thought about what had happened to us. I thought about the way she looked on the subway—still beautiful, like I remembered, but different. No one would ever describe Grace as cute. Even though she was petite, she was too striking to be cute, with her big green eyes and massive mane of blonde hair. Her eyes had seemed hollow, her face a bit harder than when I last saw her. It had only taken one glance for me to know she wasn’t the effervescent, free spirit I’d known years ago. It made me crazy wondering what her life was like now.
Cheers erupted from the break room down the hall.
I wandered over to witness the tail end of my ex-wife announcing her pregnancy to our co-workers. It wasn’t long after my divorce that I became acutely aware of everyone around me carrying on, living life. I was static, standing on the platform, watching train after train go by, wishing I knew which one to be on. Elizabeth was already at the next stop, starting a family while I was slinking back to my shitty cubicle, hoping not to be seen. I was indifferent toward her and her pregnancy news. I was numb . . . but I shot her an email anyway out of some residual obligation still lingering from our failed marriage.
Congratulations. I’m happy for you. I know how badly you wanted a child.
Two minutes later, my email pinged.
Best? Really? You can’t say “love” after spending over a decade of your life with me?
I didn’t respond. I was in a hurry. I needed to get back on the subway.