On a whim, I sent you a recipe for cauliflower and fennel in a coconut curry sauce; you diligently shopped for the ingredients and prepared a perfect meal. Tonight it was turnip and green beans, grated carrot and chicken with turmeric over which your mother voiced her enthusiastic approval. I am not trying to win her over, but she is under the mistaken impression that these recipes are for her, and so she is slowly beginning to like me.
I wake up early; there are so many things I still need to understand. We’ve been playing the game of where-were-you-when: where was I when you were in Athens? In Saudi Arabia? In Paris? When you returned to New York, I was checking coats uptown, waiting to hear whether or not I would be moving to Berlin to do graduate work, waiting to hear my fate. It’s not impossible that you had lunch there one day, a small midtown restaurant for the martini lunch crowd consisting almost exclusively of men in suits. They’d arrive in a bluster of back-patting joviality and hand over their coats, which had cost them the equivalent of six months’ rent on my railroad apartment; they’d inquire after the book I was reading, and sometimes, rarely, there would be a glint of recognition in someone’s eye, something beyond a patronizing expression of approval or amused surprise that a young thing like me could be tackling the likes of Dostoyevsky—some sign of recognition, of yearning.
I used to freeze in that booth because it was next to the outside entrance, separated from the restaurant by a swinging door. After my shift was over, I was allowed to come inside and eat a meal. I remember a waitress there, a woman several years older than myself; she had been an aspiring actress, like all the girls who worked there, but then she’d gotten pregnant and had the child, a little girl, strange that I’ve forgotten their names, but I still remember visiting them somewhere in an apartment tower on the upper West Side, still remember the tiny bed with the frilly pink bedspread and my friend explaining that she’d changed, saw everything differently now that she had someone to take care of. She’d found new meaning in life, no longer needed to chase after the next role, and she pitied the girls at the restaurant checking their make-up every fifteen minutes and striking poses for the customers in the hopes of making an impression on a director or producer. While I could sympathize, I wasn’t ready to give up yet; I was just starting out, I had places to go, languages to learn, paintings to paint. The other waitresses treated her like an outsider, although she wasn’t yet thirty. Weeks turn into years / how quick they pass / and all the stars that never were / are parking cars and pumping gas: when I hear this song I think of her. Time was a currency in this business, and you had to be quick: auditions and dance lessons and photo sessions for promotion shots, it all cost money, and more than once I saw them run after a departing group of men too drunk to remember to leave a tip. Was there something wrong with the service, the worried girls would inquire tactfully, waiting for the men’s glazed eyes to focus in realization. And when they did, it wasn’t embarrassment they revealed, but a kind of fatherly indulgence: of course, of course, they’d say as they pulled out their wallets, there you are, Sweetheart, this is for you, and they’d press a crisp bill in her hand and close her fingers over it and hover several inches too close with both hands clasped over hers, and she would smile brightly, hoping it was a twenty.
I’d always found the act of accepting cash—of holding out your hand to have someone else place money in it—to be unbearably vulgar. I imagine myself standing in that coat check booth, with a little basket of dollar bills resting on a shelf below the dividing wall. I imagine you coming in with someone, in the middle of a conversation, perhaps; I imagine myself slipping a bookmark into a dog-eared paperback and taking your coats. There is no way for us to recognize each other, our trajectories are still too far apart, yet we will smile and then, for a moment, our eyes will lock, and all at once there will be that invisible tunnel between us that shuts everything else out, and the person accompanying you will hold the door open and chuckle, because he will think you’re flirting with the coat check girl, but it won’t be flirting, it will be something else entirely: it will be the look of someone who understands in some distant part of his disembodied consciousness that he is looking into the eyes of a woman whom, twenty-nine years and countless appointments and disappointments later, he is destined to meet again.