LOOTERS by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy
AT THE CAFE I MADE a show of counting the months, but I knew it had been three years since we’d stood face to face. His hair was as red as sequoia bark, thick as my favorite blanket. I wondered why he’d bothered to say hello.
He might have done it in the interest of pleasantries: say hello to someone if you know her. Let your expression conceal everything you remember: the narrow palate, the arched lower back, the ankles you wrapped in one hand. Perhaps he remembered how, at first, he found me too serious. He didn’t like the way I breathed during sex – too asthmatic, he said – and he didn’t like feeling overwhelmed by guilt. Once, when a voided check fell from his pocket, I picked it up and saw that he and his girlfriend shared an account. Their address was on Pearl Street, which sounded beautiful to me: beautiful and adult and inaccessible, like marriage. What could you do on Pearl Street but bathe in a marble tub, drinking tulip glasses of pink champagne?
“A joint account?” I said. “So you’re basically married.”
“Please don’t have one of your tantrums,” he’d said.
In the café, he smiled at me as if we were old friends.
“Let’s catch up,” he said. “Get dinner or something.”
“Why not?” I said. I was proud of my composure, which was like being proud of remembering to wash my hands.
My husband David and I owned a house on West Twelfth Street, and he used the garden apartment for his office. When I came home that afternoon I saw silk azaleas in the window, his signal to me that he wasn’t with a patient.
He ran the air conditioning only during his sessions, and the waiting room was hot and stale. I sat on the moss green couch that used to be in my mother’s house. Most of the things in his waiting room used to be in my mother’s house: the pie crust table and floor lamps, the bone inlay mirror, the pink crackle-glazed tray. These were the spoils from the recent sale of my childhood home.
“Are you in here, David?” I said.
“Yeah.” He pronounced yeah as if it were yacht.
“Guess who I saw today?”
He emerged from his office with a dust rag in his hand.
“The bloody cleaning service cancelled on me again,” he said. His eyeglasses were slightly crooked. They were Italian and had thick black frames, the only patently expensive thing he was willing to wear. “Who did you see?”
“Ah.” He scanned the magazines on the coffee table, chose the oldest two, and threw them away. “How was it?”
“Glad to hear it.” He sneezed. “Can you go up and figure out something for dinner?”
The living room furniture was cloaked in drop cloths; the painters were due that week with their cans of green satin finish. Our white dishes looked uneasy on their open kitchen shelves, as if they feared they were next.
“We have mayonnaise and wilted radicchio,” I said when David came up. “We can make a depressing salad, or we can order in.”
He nodded, opening the vermouth, cracking the ice tray. He bowed before he handed me my drink.
“So when are you going to see him again?” he said.
“You mean Nick?” I sat down at the table. “I don’t know that I will.”
“Of course you will. Should we have him over for dinner?”
“Why not?” He leaned against the counter with his arms crossed, his sleeves rolled up, his loafers scuffed to the point of absurdity. I could feel the twelve years between us turn into an instrument. He was going to sound wise, and it was going to piss me off.
“I think you can figure it out,” I said.
I dated Nick for six months while he lived with someone else. He gave me the impression that he was thinking of leaving her. He gave me cold sores and he gave me a tiger’s eye stone. He made me mushroom omelets and he made me sleep on the left, even though we were always in my apartment and my bed. He made me feel guilty if I wasn’t instantly wet. I’d say I needed a minute; he’d say he needed to sleep. He showered with the door open but he never invited me in. One night I counted the number of times he said I was beautiful: the total was thirty-nine. “Thirty-nine times in eight hours,” I told my friend Stella.
“You know what that means?” she said.
I waited for her to say aloud the thought I’d been harboring: that the number was too high to reflect anything but hunger. There was a reason he bit my fingers in the same order every time, starting with the middle of each hand. He formed habits for my body because he wanted it all to himself.
“What does it mean?” I said.
“It means he knows how to pronounce the word ‘beautiful.’”
I looked at her, startled.
“Of course I am,” she said. “Until I hear it forty times in one night, I’ll be jealous.”
In the kitchen, still standing by the fridge, I drained my glass. David once told me I didn’t know how to drink an aperitif. “You have to sip,” he’d said. “Have the patience to sip.” He chewed on an ice cube, nodding to himself.
“I’d want to see him, too, if I were you,” he said. “Just to see if he’s still interested.”
In the café that morning, when Nick touched my shoulder, nothing had changed in his face. He’d ordered hazelnut with skim milk, like a secretary on a diet.
“He’s not interested,” I said.
“But you want to know for sure.”
“Would you like to come with me?” I said. “Would you feel better if the three of us went out together?”
“Don’t be silly,” David said. “I trust you.”
“The question is can I trust him.”
“Or will he try to steal you from me?”
“I already told you no,” I said.
At the restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, Nick drank gimlets and I drank sparkling wine.
“Look at these menus,” he said. “They’re handmade.”
I glanced at mine without interest. Jasmine rice, zucchini blossom, spaghetti squash.
“How can you tell?”
“My wife showed me the last time we were here.” He compared the calligraphy: the a in fiddlehead was larger on my menu than on his; the m was hard to distinguish from the n. Two drinks went by. He ordered scallops and I ordered chilled melon soup, which came in a china bowl painted with ladybugs. Stella had advised me not to order soup. “It will make him focus on your mouth too much,” she’d said. I’d stopped by her place on my way to meet him. Her face was blotchy and pink when she answered the door.
“They’re hives,” she said. “I bought this scarf because it was on clearance, but I can’t handle wool.” She handed me the scarf. It was the color of preserved lemons. “You can have it,” she added. She was wearing platform sandals with her white denim shorts. Her black hair was in two braids. I wondered how many people would believe she was a lawyer if I towed her onto the sidewalk and told everyone who walked by.
“Maybe you shouldn’t buy scarves in August,” I said.
“A date with Nick Garnett. What does David think?”
“David doesn’t care because he knows it’s not a date. Nick said the restaurant was his wife’s suggestion.”
“So?” The silverware drawer had faceted glass knobs, and one of them was loose. Stella pulled it out and held it in her palm. “Maybe he just wants to see if you’ll show up.”
“That’s a shitty reason.”
“What reason do you want?”
“Maybe he has a question for you.”
“Such as ‘please run away with me.’”
“He and his wife just bought a house in New Jersey.”
“Then he’s one step closer to leaving her,” Stella said.
“You’re an idiot,” I said.
She laughed and told me not to order soup.
The power went out right after our plates were cleared. The darkness was unfamiliar, sudden and deep, without merciful points of light.
“Every AC unit in the city is running tonight,” Nick said. “I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often.” He twisted in his chair, trying to look out the window. “No streetlamps,” he said. “No traffic lights, either.” I heard him slide a fork along the table, searching for his drink. The tines ran over the ridges in the glass. “Better finish this now.”
Nearly five minutes passed. Children started to cry. The manager appeared, beleaguered and sweaty, holding a flashlight aloft. She wore a red A-line dress and chandelier earrings, and I sensed that her whole night was geared toward the eventuality of sex. Her expression revealed disappointment, an expectation of delay.
“Everyone please be patient,” she said. “The power should be back up soon.”
People started demanding candles and flashlights. The manager vanished – a wise decision, I thought – but returned to let us know that New Jersey still had power.
“Ferries are running, trains are not. That’s all I can tell you,” she said, snapping off her light.
“I guess we should go,” Nick said.
“You should get on one of the ferries.”
“Depends on what it’s like out there,” he said. “We can walk towards the pier, but I can’t leave you in the middle of a riot.”
We joined a thick knot of impatient people and left without paying. There was no way to pay.
On the sidewalk you could buy a bag of thawing shrimp for three dollars. For two dollars you could get a tub of pistachio ice cream that would have looked like green milk if you could have seen it. The people running these sales were armed with flashlights, which other people were trying to buy from them. A man in a dirty cowboy hat shined his light right in my face. He wore a pink glow stick necklace and turquoise rings.
“I can tell you two are in need of hydration,” he said. He held open a bag full of bottled water.
“Thanks,” Nick said, reaching into the bag.
“Fifteen dollars apiece.”
He withdrew his hand.
“Fifteen dollars apiece.”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s what everyone says at first.” He smirked. “You know you’re going to be thirsty, and it’s not going to get any cooler tonight.”
“He has a point,” I said.
Nick held his wallet in the flashlight beam and took out a twenty.
“I want my change.”
“You’ll get your change. Don’t worry about it.”
“Extortion,” Nick said.
“You don’t like the price, you have options. Take a baseball bat to a shop window like everyone else.”
“I haven’t seen anyone doing that.”
“Where do you think I got my inventory?” The man laughed, removed his necklace, and handed it to me. “For you,” he said. “Tell your boyfriend here to lighten up.”
When we reached the next block Nick said, “That water salesman is exactly why I can’t leave you out here.”
“That guy was harmless – opportunistic at worst. Plus he gave me jewelry.”
“Only the finest for you, Rose,” he said.
We walked on broken glass because we couldn’t see it, through puddles we tried not to think about. We watched people directing the scant traffic with flashlights and flares. Police drove by at regular intervals, looking helpless. The brownout had called forth prophets enlivened by invisibility. They warned us that Christ was on the Brooklyn Bridge, the BQE, the FDR.
“A lot of Jesus types out tonight,” I said.
“Do they scare you?”
“None of this scares me.”
“Really?” He stopped walking. “You’re telling me you’d walk home on your own?” He accidentally brushed my skin when he touched the necklace. “What if I took this away?”
“You can have it.”
“I was kidding.”
“It’s yours.” I yanked it over my head. “I don’t need it.”
“Neither do I.”
The pink band dropped to the ground and lit the toes of our shoes. I was standing close enough to him to breathe in the scent of his shirt. His shirts used to smell of vending machine soap and loose change. That night it smelled like a cedar closet.
“What do you want to do?” I said.
He exhaled through his teeth.
“Should I walk you home, or can I get in line for the ferry?”
“Get in line,” I said. I imagined his house in the suburbs: too many square feet in red brick Federal style, his sons’ toys all over the yard. He’d shown me their photos during the first round of drinks, when I was starting to realize that I could have been anyone. Someone had to sit with Nick and I happened to take the chair; that was all.
He told me about Sean and Jared – Irish twins, haha. He told me what they loved (sandcastles), despised (yogurt), and feared (spiders). As he spoke, I kept thinking of an afternoon when we were in bed and I’d looked over his shoulder to admire my hands on his back. Instead I turned my face from the sight of his hips, feeling slighted; he moved mindlessly, with instinct unrelated to any particular flesh.
David was on our front stoop, holding a candle, when I finally arrived.
“Unscathed, I’m glad to see,” he said. “How far did you have to walk?”
“From Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Where’s your friend?”
“On his way back to Jersey.”
In our room, David set the candle on the dresser, next to the mint julep cup where I kept my bobby pins.
“I was worried about you, of course, but I was glad you weren’t alone,” he said.
I twisted my hair into a tighter knot on top of my head. I could feel him waiting for me to speak.
“The guy walked you down here, right? He didn’t just leave you out there?”
Who wants to believe his wife is so easily set aside? Who wants to see her standing alone by the Hudson, her rarely-worn lipstick intact, her feet giving in to blisters, preparing to walk more than twenty blocks by herself? Who, thinking of her slender arms, would like to believe them unguarded?
“Of course not,” I said. “He walked me to the end of our block.”
David unzipped my dress and drew it down to my heels. We sat in the bathtub because it was the coolest place in the house.
“Think you’ll have dinner with him again?” he said.
“Neither one of us feels the need to repeat this evening.”
“You made an explicit agreement?”
“We didn’t have to.”
“Ah,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the tub. “It’s nice that you two still know each other that well.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “Dinner was boring. We had nothing to talk about.”
“Did you ever?”
I nodded, my face against his chest. The truth was that Nick and I had never talked; all we ever did was scrounge for time. It was fifteen minutes with my dress still on; an afternoon that found its way to midnight; an hour with a blindfold that bored us both. My favorite hours were the ones in which he was asleep, so that our complete silence made perfect sense. He slept and I studied his skin, kissing the freckles like ground cloves, the moles like tiny peppercorns. I drew lines among the marks with a hopeful fingertip, instilling invisible order on his back.
JACKIE THOMAS-KENNEDY is a recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her stories have appeared in Narrative, Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, The L Magazine, StoryQuarterly, SLICE, and the Madison Review. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction from Columbia University School of the Arts.