I’ve spent most of the day dreaming in the present tense like a fucking teenager. Freud says wishes are represented as fulfilled in the present tense. Dreams and daydreams are expressed in the present tense, too. It’s early evening now in our big city of dreams, and the images in my head—wolfish, frisky—are only in my head.
I could call her, I think. Make the dream real. Those greedy glances at last night’s party were real. She was subtle, she was, but it was there, alive and thrashing between us. I could call her now. Pick up the phone. The sun is mustard yellow, proud and high in an indigo sky. She won’t be here long. Back to her war-looped desert she will go, where the air, she says, is no longer hairdryer hot. I could get away with it. That’s not the issue. Now or never. That’s the issue. I’m here in my Madison Avenue office, and I could pick up the phone and call her now, or never again.
I’m sixty-eight. She mentioned she’ll be forty-something next week. When she said it, her chin tilted up in a way that made me want to hold her face in both my hands and gaze into her stallion-black eyes like the romantic I’ve only ever been in my heart. My daughters are in their thirties, younger than her. Does that make it better? There’s nothing here. Yet. There could well be, I think. The phone in my pocket and her in a hotel for a few more days, a ten-minute cab ride away, fifteen at most.
It’s not like I haven’t done it before. Loose infidelities. Ropes that kept me afloat through years of family and frustration and the moored love of a woman I’ve been married to for almost forty years. I have it good. A fat, satisfying life with me smack in the middle of it. My happy belly, my wined-and-dined cheeks. My children close, healthy grandchildren, and money enough to distance us from the claws of history that flung my mother here.
My mother balanced along the edge of survival for decades, but we kids paid little attention. We went to school, we ate well enough, we felt loved. She never mentioned the people and things left behind. She never mentioned her passage from there to here with her nondescript little suitcase. The unmentionable past, mentioned only by an uncle I didn’t know existed until my mother was nearly dead. Someone must have called him, but it wasn’t me, his oblivious eldest nephew. He was a butcher. A giant of a man with a heavy accent, the slightest trace of which was detectable in my mother’s speech when she was shattered or if she let down her guard, which was hardly ever.
My mother’s visible fatigue made well-behaved, responsible children of us. It easily could have gone in an altogether different direction. We could have fallen into anything—drugs or crime or rebellion or depression—but we didn’t. We all went to college because that was possible in those days even if you weren’t landed gentry. We became respectable professionals. We didn’t ask questions about her past because we didn’t think to. Time passes, life proceeds, and the questions get buried. Then someone gets sick, and it’s too late. They die, and all you want is to know.
I’ve done this before, though it’s been a while. My God, it’s been at least a decade. Ten years since my mother died. No wonder I’m flailing around like a shot seagull. Those casual dips meant nothing to me. Anna knew. She enjoyed dips of her own. Who could forget the tennis instructor with his strong arms toned and tanned and ready to serve. It didn’t matter enough to her or to me to bring out into the open. Neither one of us are talkers. We are of the stuff-it-inside generation, and while I, at least, unstuff for my therapist, Anna, who believes psychology is akin to astronomy and crystals, never does. Still, our affairs mattered nothing in the face of first steps, scraped knees, tuition fees, and waiting up all night for the girls to come home after dates. Nothing beyond insignificant deceits. I was never tempted away from them. My family.
Never then and not now either, I think. But if not now with her, then never with anyone again. I am like every stupid man my age. To feel attractive to a beautiful woman twenty plus years younger is an automatic turn-on, without blue pills, despite statins. We sat across from each other, her legs crossed, her back pole straight, and my belly distended between us. Her dark eyes struck mine as we discussed the ruined world, as the privileged do. The climate apocalypse and the fires of summer, the ubiquity of screens and artificial intelligence. I stared hard at her mouth as she spoke of Saudi Arabia and Iran and Israel and the strategic alliances that would or would not come to pass, imagining that perfect mouth going down on my cock. Her lips curled up and she narrowed her eyes like she could see the filthy reel in my head, like she approved. Sparks flew all night in a way I had forgotten was possible. That adolescent, present tense way my grandsons, in a few years, will enjoy for a while, then forget about, then remember with fond regret in their sixties and seventies, tearing up when they hear nostalgic songs that make them feel what it was like when they were masters of their own bodies, kings of their visceral castles. I want that present tense back. She gave it to me last night.
My phone is fully charged and ready. My hand is wrapped around it. I unclasp. I clasp again tighter and feel condensation beading between hand and screen.
I want her for the same reason every decrepit asshole on TMZ wants a younger woman. Maybe not exactly the same. Those vampires collect twenty-year-olds to suck up their youth. But desire isn’t etched on those women’s faces, is it? More like they want to line their mattresses with old-man money or opportunity. I couldn’t go for a twenty-year-old. Forty is young enough. Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of vampire in my desire. I want her spread-eagled on a rented bed. But what’s really attracted me to this woman is the fact that she seems sexually attracted to me. In essence, if we do end up having sex, I’ll be fucking myself. She wants me. In the crossing and uncrossing of those legs.
What’s in it for her? She mentioned her birthday is next week. Or did she say tomorrow? I don’t remember. Maybe next week, maybe today. Maybe forty, maybe forty-five. Shouldn’t she celebrate by sleeping with some young blond beast with washboard abs? I see her with a Viking. Opposites attract and all that. Not my white bush of hair, my overgrown eyebrows, stubbornly dark. Why should she want to step down instead of up? She doesn’t need to step down yet. She looks great. Yoga-ed and kale-ed and most definitely gluten-free. She looks strong. I can’t say she looks happy because I’m not sure what that looks like anymore. Do I look happy? Does Anna? Does anyone?
Anna does not look happy, but Anna rarely did. Oh Anna, my Anna. Pensive on good days, brooding otherwise. I’m the one our girls ran to. The friendly elephant in the house. Good food and succor. Their skinny little bodies in my wide-open arms. Anna remains the voice of, if not reason, then cold comfort. As comfortable as an Icelandic glacier. We went to Iceland a few years ago, just her and me. My work has taken me all over the world, but Anna never wanted to come along, using the girls as her excuse. But it wasn’t about the girls. Anna didn’t want anything new or unfamiliar to dislodge her sense that things had to be exactly as they were. Maybe because she was an only child, while I was caught in a tangle of siblings. Because she grew up with a maid on Park Avenue, as I watched my mother exchange food stamps for processed cheese in Greenpoint.
Iceland was the exception, the island Anna always said she wanted to see. So, when I was invited to give the keynote at the Branding the Body conference in Reykjavík, off we went together to explore the great tundra. My expectations were high, envisioning intimate swims in the milky blue waters of the famous lagoon and afternoon strolls along Sæbraut, the blue Atlantic before us, the sculpture of Sólfar—a glittering ship of dreams—carrying us away. I wanted, above all, to be washed clean by the Northern Lights, for the whips of green in the night sky to crack us open for each other in the final act of our lives. I was an eager puppy, and tucked in our business class pods, I toasted our future with a warm glass of champagne.
I had shared none of my Iceland hopes with Anna, believing they would seep into her as if by magic. But magic is not—has never been—part of our anatomy. While I was at the conference, Anna spent the mornings exploring the island alone, taking organized bus tours to all the sites, walking along the seafront at dawn so that I missed her even at breakfast, too exhausted by evening to want to do anything with me. On the night of my keynote address, we were invited by the conference organizers to a dinner in my honor. She instead took a private tour with a car and driver to catch the Northern Lights. She returned, enraptured, to our hotel room to find me drunk, lying flat on my back staring at the ceiling. In response to my inconsolable agony, she calmly gestured to the note she had left neatly folded on the bedside table, an invitation, she called it. I pointed out that that day, of all days, had been impossible for me, that she knew it was the day of my keynote, the night of my special dinner, and that she had embarrassed me in front of the organizers, who had paid for our tickets and who must have been snickering behind my back over my invisible wife. She could have waited until tomorrow, I said, exasperation shrilling my voice. We were leaving tomorrow, she reminded me, tomorrow was too late. Anna shrugged her shoulders. You missed it, she said, like it was my fault.
Maybe it was.
Staring out the window of the plane heading back to New York the next day, my head pounding, I understood exactly why Anna loved Iceland. Anna was Iceland. Not cold, not frigid, not any of those sexist descriptors we men use to sanction our midlife divorces. Anna was both extensive and encircled. She was opal and coal. She shone electric blue or collapsed into Vantablack, depending on the time of year. Contradictions drew me to her and her to me. Our back and forth to the point of anger or exhilaration. Beauty, even love, inhabited her crevasses, and I had always managed to coax these out. But there might come a time when nothing emerges out of the crevasse. A massive boulder—not to mention tenderness—can get lodged in tight or disappear into the depths of the planet for all eternity. Looking down at Iceland I recognized the map of our marriage laid out. Anna was Iceland, but she wasn’t mine. I turned to watch her face as she peered at the patchwork landscape below, gold and gray, potentially erupting orange, for the moment pale green. I saw small smiles crease her wet eyes, and they had nothing to do with me.
“You want to see me.”
“Will you come down? My hotel bar.”
“See you then.”
I’m an intelligent man. And funny. And good at what I do, which is to come up with ideas to sell just about anything, people included. Advertising, branding, call it what you want. I sell things. I’m an old man in a young person’s field, but I make money, so I’m permitted to stay. Not forever, but for now. It’s not unthinkable that I might be attractive to her, that her fling in a city not her own might include me and not the magnificent Viking, who I’m sure will be resting his sturdy elbows on the dim bar of her too trendy hotel. He might make it difficult for me. I won’t be able to take my eyes off him, which she’ll notice, and then she’ll look over my shoulder and think, why not him instead? Why this one with the belly bulge and unruly ear hair? He’s smart, I’ll give him that, but what I’m after doesn’t require intelligence, does it?
Or does it? I don’t know what she’s after. She reminds me of the perfect in-between, like Goldilocks or Earth. Not too young, not yet old. Lines still permeable, life still extendable. In her, dreams can be made real in the present—not the distant past, not the shrinking future. She’s an artist who represents herself, unagented is how she put it. Better for me is what I responded. We met for the first time over a year ago at the Galeria Senda in Barcelona. She was artist-in-residence at some institution in the city. I was there because city galleries are where I harvest ideas. She was all I noticed in that gallery on an afternoon glazed thick with warm air. Exactly my type, I thought. We never outgrow what first attracts us, do we? Dark hair and eyes, olive skin. Something in her stance made her seem simultaneously self-possessed and wild. She was a version of my first love, and my second. She was the polar opposite of Anna, my third, who I married at an age when I believed myself to have overcome the mere physical. I chose Anna because she was capable and quiet. Her sharpness and—I’ll say it—her class attracted me. Not her blond hair or translucent skin. Her reserve was the lure I could not resist. But, as a friend once said to me, we desire what we desire, and what we desire doesn’t change much over the course of a lifetime. If you liked big tits as a kid, he explained, you probably always will, no matter how refined your tastes become. As it turns out, the mere physical is all. Well, maybe not all, but a hell of a lot more than I once thought.
It was a brief encounter at that Barcelona gallery, shoulder to shoulder before a forgettable image. We exchanged cards. Lena. No last name, like she had birthed herself. I found her website, scrolled through her work, read her Instagram posts. My engagement with her online presence felt like a shared secret, equal parts personal and profane. For about a week I checked her updates every hour, with revolting compulsion.
She traveled even more than I did. I couldn’t figure out how she made her money, not that she exuded the excessive wealth associated with her country. She glided from one Airbnb to another, untethered. There were unfiltered photos of a single open suitcase that appeared to contain much of her life. She traveled as often as she could, she explained on Instagram, “not to escape troubles—impossible in these parts—but to put them in their place. Better to live in the melancholy present than to regret the past or worry the beads of an uncertain future.” It sounded a bit hokey to me and, at the same time, true.
She didn’t often post photos of herself, but there was this blurry one of her with a yellow scarf whipping around her neck like a noose. Her hand was at her cheek, about to tuck wet hair behind her ear. It was as much a photo of inclement weather as it was of her face. She glanced at the camera for what must have been a split second. In that moment, the camera caught a look of such anxious devotion, it made me want to murder the photographer. Jealousy, too, is a kind of love.
There’s no better place to be present than on an airplane. She said that the second time we met, about six months after the first, at Heathrow. I was heading home. I remember her mentioning Istanbul. I didn’t comment on the oddness of our meeting like this, though I had wanted to make something meaningful of it. I doubt she registered our encounter as unusual or coincidental. I knew from her online accounts that happy accidents happened all the time to Lena. She allowed them to draw her along, a kind of twenty-first-century existence she had constructed for herself that fed into her work. But it wasn’t only about her work. It was something about her. She was always leaving home in anger, she said, like a kitchen sink drama. Then, weeks or months later, a vision of burning oil wells would pull her back, persuading her that this time would be different: talent would be honored, opportunities shared, corruption quashed, potentialities actualized. That never happened. Her travels seemed a willful deferment of inevitable disappointment, offering an addictive, temporary balm.
We signed a contract soon after that second encounter at Heathrow. I’m not sure whose idea it was. Hers, I think, and I went along, of course, as she knew I would, because our signatures would bind us together. She would be working for me, sort of. She would provide me with swatches of the world’s neglected colors, she said, lists of abandoned words, ideas I could use in my work. She was giving me ideas, of that there was no doubt.
She said that where she came from, the sun scorched everything white. A plastic trashcan could start out the brightest orange—Jaffa orange, she called it—and the sun would bleach it bone white by the end of summer. It was the same with streets and buildings and signs and people. The sun scorched and burned and broke everything down, not to fundamentals, but to nothing. Against this, she roamed the globe to reclaim the things the sun took away from her in the homeland she was reluctant to call by that name. Lena is a vagabond and a collector, and I wonder whether I am to become another collected thing and, if so, why?
I might ask her tonight, over dirty martinis.
Who would Anna choose to clink glasses with? Dirty martinis, never. It would have to be a fine Malbec for Anna. I can’t say I know what Anna dreams about these days. Involved, as she is, with the lives of our grandchildren, my sense is that her dreams have drifted into the land of bumped baby heads and toddlers wobbly on their feet. She’s channeled her every emotion into them—different from the way she was with our girls—almost like an escape from something. Maybe me. Part of me hopes that’s not the case. Another part that it is. She recently retired from a job editing encyclopedia entries. She disliked the tedious work but did it anyway. Her fair share, she explained whenever I encouraged her to quit. Anna has done more than her fair share with our home and me in it, patiently, meticulously, without complaint. It’s never really been about money for me, which is counterintuitive, since my aim growing up was to make as much as possible. I didn’t want to destroy myself with worry the way my mother had destroyed herself over our survival, and I understood that money, piles of it, was necessary to achieve that kind of security. But after a certain point, security without risk or passion wasn’t worth a life. I had known that in my thirties but did nothing to change course. For shame.
“It’s a dark bar, isn’t it?”
“It’s the look they’re after, I suppose.”
“It’s a dark lobby, too.”
“What’re you having?”
“A dirty martini? Like last time.”
“Two very dirty martinis, please.”
“Is today your birthday?”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you here with me on your birthday?”
“You called, remember?”
“You could have said no.”
“I didn’t want to.”
“I like talking to you.”
“Is that it?”
“Kristof, are you asking me why I might want to sleep with you?”
“Instead of—” I glance around to find him in his golden glory. “That guy.”
She gulps down the cloudy liquid and laughs out loud. She shakes her head at me. “It’s an easy enough question to answer, isn’t it?”
“I can’t figure it out, and I’ve been thinking about it all day.”
She pauses for a moment before responding, “You make me feel young.”
I take her face in my hands like I’ve been dreaming of doing. Only for a second. Longer would seem disturbingly old-timey. She feels like Corsica to me, or a Shakespeare sonnet. She is the celestial attraction, the aurora borealis I stupidly missed in Iceland. Between my legs, my trusty member stirs.
Anna cannot make me feel young. I cannot make Anna feel young. We are too close in age, and we know too much about each other. I make Lena feel young. Lena makes me feel young. An affair comes down to these definitive equations. I have friends who’ve packed it all in for this sensation, refusing to accept its ephemerality. It will last, it will last, they explain to me with desperation, like I need convincing. I never express my doubts. It’s not my place, or anyone’s place, to judge the decisions of others when it comes to the decimation of their families. To each his or her own singular decimation, I always say. This will not be mine, no matter how great it feels, and it already feels terrific, the vodka and the dark bar and the Viking long gone. Her hair under my nails, her knees against mine.
I’ve forgotten how to move with a woman. This is what’s called a wish on its way to being fulfilled. There should be nothing at all to it. But the vodka was a quick hit, fading fast, and I can’t help thinking of Anna and my poor mother with her suitcase and the web of history. This clever woman with chocolate hair is looking at me. What does she expect? Why can’t I let myself slip in? To be young is to live in the present tense. That’s all she wants, and she has decided I can do it for her. That’s what I want too, isn’t it? This one night.
Young is what I am not. All I can think about is the mess of the morning after. But, really, what mess? The children are adults with children of their own. Anna won’t flinch, she won’t even find out. Lena is forty-something years old, in no need of protecting. Nothing but me holds me back.
She’s wearing a black skirt that has a beige silhouette of two people running across some kind of expanse, a field or desert. Maybe they’re running across an ocean. It’s an unusual skirt, right for an artist. But I can’t comment on it. I can’t comment on apartheid in Palestine or women in Iran or Daylight Savings, which ends tomorrow. I can’t bring up being old but unvampiric. I can’t bring up Iceland—too much, too soon. What’s left? She smells like butter and her bare lips beguile.
“It’s getting late. Do you want to go for a walk?”
“Not really. Do you?”
“Would you like another drink, then?”
“Are you trying to cobble an escape, Kristof?”
“I’m trying to decide what you want.”
“What you want?”
She leans in, and there aren’t many options left. She’s a bridge between then and later, that much I know. She is the unspoiled now.
“Maybe we should walk.”
“Okay,” she says.
I take her hand and lead her through the black velvet curtains that separate the hotel from the glass door to the outside. It’s raining. Anna was going to babysit the grandkids, so she will likely spend the night at our daughter’s. Lena and I stroll the short distance to West 28th Street, then head toward the Hudson.
“My mother came to this country from Poland with her brother in 1941. They came with one suitcase. No family. No friends. She died ten years ago.”
“What was in it?”
“The suitcase? I don’t know. She never said, and we’re not close to my uncle. Only the suitcase was mentioned, not what was inside.”
“What do you think was in it?”
“A few pieces of clothing, I imagine. Nothing of much value. Maybe the tiny inlay box that was on my mother’s night stand.”
“What was in the box?”
“I think she kept her wedding ring in it. She stopped wearing it after my father died. My sister has it now. I should ask her.”
“Have you read Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase?”
“You might love it.”
“I might love you.”
Lena throws back her head and laughs. “Why would you even say that?”
“It could be true.”
“Improbable, bordering on absurd.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
“Your name, Kristof, is wonderful.”
We stop in the rain, in front of the Church of the Holy Apostles.
“The High Line?” It’s almost 10 p.m., too late for that, I know as I say it. We walk a bit farther.
“You’re eager for a destination, aren’t you? The High Line. Love. What is it exactly, Kristof, that you want?” Her voice teases.
“I haven’t figured that out.”
“That may be a good sign.”
We sit on a bench, and there’s nothing left but for me to kiss her. I clench my fists and look straight ahead, not at her. I cannot be a normal man. A normal man would gather her into his arms and do it, escort her back to the hotel and fuck some sense into himself.
I turn to look at this woman who will return to her distant country in a few days, but who I will see again because we share work. How much of her have I made up?
“If I kiss you, Lena, I’m done.”
The suitcase, Iceland. Her face looks cold, her brown eyes reflect Anna’s aqueous blue, which is impossible, I know, but there it is. Beautiful Anna and the lies I tell myself.
I take off my coat and sheathe her in it like a blade. I sit beside her, a shapeless heap who wants to live. She stands, and my coat frowns around her shoulders. She straddles me like there’s no tomorrow.
“Have you ever been happier, Kristof?”
How happy we might yet become. At the edge of some vast expanse—a desert, an ocean, a glacier—escaping on a ship of dreams. Lena and me running, decimation in our sorry wake.