The rise isn’t worth the fall.
New York City
March 10, 2014
Night settles over Addie as she crosses the Brooklyn Bridge.
The promise of spring has retreated like a tide, replaced again by a damp winter chill, and she pulls her jacket close, breath fogging as she starts the long stretch up the length of Manhattan.
It would be easy enough to take the subway, but Addie has never liked being underground, where the air is close and stale, the tunnels too much like tombs. Being trapped, buried alive, these are the things that scare you when you cannot die. Besides, she doesn’t mind walking, knows the strength of her own limbs, relishes the kind of tired she used to dread.
Still, it’s late, and her cheeks are numb, her legs weary, by the time she reaches the Baxter on Fifty-sixth.
A man in a trim gray coat holds the door, and her skin tingles at the sudden flush of central heat as she steps into the Baxter’s marble lobby. She is already dreaming of a hot shower and a soft bed, already moving toward the open elevator, when the man behind the desk rises from his seat.
“Good evening,” he says. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see James,” she says, without slowing. “Twenty-third floor.”
The man frowns. “He isn’t in.”
“Even better,” she says, stepping into the elevator.
“Ma’am,” he calls, starting after her, “you can’t just—” but the doors are already closing. He knows he will not make it, is already turning back toward the desk, reaching for the phone to call security, and that is the last thing she sees before the doors slide shut between them. Perhaps he will get the phone to his ear, even begin to dial before the thought slips from his mind, and then he will look down at the receiver in his hand and wonder what he was thinking, apologize profusely to the voice on the line before sinking back into his seat.
* * *
The apartment belongs to James St. Clair.
They had met at a coffee shop downtown a couple months ago. The seats were all taken when he came over, wisps of blond escaping the hem of a winter hat, glasses fogging from the cold. That day Addie was Rebecca, and before he’d even introduced himself, James had asked if he could share her table, saw that she was reading Colette’s Chéri, and managed a few lines of broken, blushing French. He sat, and soon easy smiles gave way to easy conversation. Funny, how some people take an age to warm, and others simply walk into every room as if it’s home.
James was like that, instantly likable.
When he asked, she said that she was a poet (an easy lie, as no one ever asked for proof), and he told her he was between jobs, and she nursed her coffee for as long as she could, but eventually her cup was empty, and so was his, and new customers were circling, buzzard-like, in search of chairs, but when he began to rise, she’d felt that old familiar sadness. And then James asked if she liked ice cream, and even though it was January, the ground outside slicked with ice and paving salt, Addie said she did, and this time when they stood, they stood together.
Now she types the six-digit code into the keypad on his door and steps inside.
The lights come on, revealing pale wood floors, and clean marble counters, lush curtains and furniture that still looks unused. A high-backed chair. A cream sofa. A table neatly stacked with books.
She unzips her boots, steps out of them beside the door, and pads barefoot through the apartment, tossing her jacket over the arm of a chair. In the kitchen, she pours herself a glass of merlot, finds a block of Gruyère in a fridge drawer and a box of gourmet crackers in the cupboard, carries her makeshift picnic into the living room, the city unfolding beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Addie sifts through his records, puts on a pressing of Billie Holiday, and retreats to the cream sofa, knees tucked up beneath her as she eats.
She would love a place like this. A place of her own. A bed molded to her body. A wardrobe full of clothes. A home, decorated with markers of the life she’s lived, the material evidence of memory. But she cannot seem to hold on to anything for long.
It is not as though she hasn’t tried.
Over the years, she’s collected books, hoarded art, hidden fine dresses away in chests and locked them there. But no matter what she does, things always go missing. They vanish, one by one, or all at once, stolen by some strange circumstance, or simply time. Only in New Orleans did she have a home, and even that was not hers, but theirs, and it is gone.
The only thing she cannot seem to rid herself of is the ring.
There was a time when she couldn’t bear to part with it again. A time when she mourned its loss. A time when her heart soared to hold it, so many decades later.
Now, she cannot stand the sight of it. It is an unwelcome weight in her pocket, an unwanted reminder of another loss. And every time her fingers skim the wood, she feels the darkness kissing her knuckle as he slides the band back on.
See? Now we are even.
Addie shudders, upsetting her glass, and drops of red wine splash over the rim, landing like blood on the cream sofa. She does not curse, does not spring to her feet to fetch club soda and a towel. She simply watches as the stain soaks in, and through, and disappears. As if it was never there.
As if she was never there.
Addie rises, and goes to run herself a bath, soaks away the city grime with scented oil, scrubs herself clean with hundred-dollar soap.
When everything slips through your fingers, you learn to savor the feel of nice things against your palm.
She settles back into the tub, and sighs, breathing in a mist of lavender and mint.
They went for ice cream that day, she and James, ate it inside the shop, heads bowed together as they stole toppings from each other’s cups. His hat sat discarded on the table, his blond curls on full display, and he was striking, yes, but it still took her a while to notice the looks.
Addie was used to passing glances—her features are sharp, but feminine, her eyes bright above the constellation of freckles on her cheeks, a kind of timeless beauty, she’s been told—but this was different. Heads were turning. Gazes lingered. And when she wondered why, he looked at her with such cheerful surprise, and confessed that he was, in fact, an actor—in a show that was currently quite popular. He blushed when he said it, looked away, then back to study her face, as if braced for some fundamental change. But Addie has never seen his work, and even if she had, she is not one to blush at fame. She has lived too long, and known too many artists. And even still, or perhaps more to the point, Addie prefers the ones who aren’t yet finished, the ones still looking for their shape.
And so James and Addie carried on.
She teased him about his loafers, his sweater, his wire-frame glasses.
He told her he was born in the wrong decade.
She told him she was born in the wrong century.
He laughed, and she didn’t, but there was something old-fashioned in his manner. Only twenty-six, but when he talked, he had the easy cadence, the slow precision, of a man who knew the weight of his own voice, belonged to the class of young men who dressed like their fathers, the charade of those too eager to grow old.
Hollywood had seen it, too. He kept getting cast in period pieces.
“I’ve got a face for sepia,” he joked.