by Marc Taurisano
Walking to Union Square, Ryan did his best to ignore the heavy clouds that darkened the sky. It had been the wettest, coldest June that anyone in New York could remember, and Ryan joined with much of the populace in feeling anxious and disoriented as a result of it. March, it seemed, had persisted for four months, robbing them of spring and the best weeks of summer.
The weather was not his only concern. The phrase “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” was a popular way to describe the sorry state of the economy, and the dismal mood that prevailed at his office had lately made going to work more difficult than ever for him.
Within seconds of feeling the first tentative drops, Ryan descended into the subway station. He swiped his Metrocard and passed through the turnstile, reminding himself that he should not get his hopes up, that the meeting he was on his way to was emphatically not a date. He was having coffee with an old acquaintance. Nothing was likely to come of it.
The 6 train rattled noisily uptown, its conductor the sort who seemed to enjoy tormenting his riders, his stops and starts characterized by a jerky suddenness that repeatedly pulled Ryan out of his daydream. Ryan’s iPod was in his pocket, but he opted against listening to it. He felt jumpy and nervous, his mind fitfully revisiting the summer fifteen years earlier when he and Kate met.
He had just graduated from Amherst and had a job lined up on Wall Street. She was fresh out of high school and was headed in the fall to either Arizona or Arizona State––Ryan could not remember which. He and a childhood friend, a lanky guy named Mitch, who, at the time, had long hair and a bushy goatee, had driven west to follow the Grateful Dead and indulge in their last few weeks of youthful irresponsibility.
During the show in Louisville, Ryan had stood on the crowded floor of the stadium, inhaling deeply from a pipe as the band played “Dire Wolf,” a song that, regardless of how stoned he was, Ryan always found somewhat irritating. Someone brushed against him, his forearm making contact with an exposed shoulder, its skin soft and smooth. He looked into the face of an attractive young blonde whose tanned, laid-back demeanor was refreshingly unlike that of the former prep school girls whom he had devoted much of the last four years to pursuing, usually without success.
Ryan offered her the pipe. She nodded, breathing in the smoke as he ignited the ashes with his lighter.
It could have hardly worked out better. She was traveling with a friend named Laura whom Mitch hit it off with. The four of them partied together that night at the campground where they were staying and then left the following day. Shows in Ohio and Illinois were followed by three on the west coast––Seattle, Oregon, and, finally, Oakland.
Ryan made it clear to Kate that Oakland, for him, would be the end of the line. He needed to get back to his parents’ house in Westchester so that he could look for an apartment in Manhattan and prepare mentally for the job he was about to begin, a job he secretly feared he might hate.
Kate struggled to keep herself together as he drove them to the stadium in Oakland.
“We can keep in touch,” he said, his words sounding hollow and unconvincing, even to him. “We can make plans to see each other again at some point.”
She covered her eyes and burst into tears.
During the second set, while the band played “Scarlet Begonias,” Kate grabbed Laura and led her away, the two of them melting into the crowd. Ryan looked at Mitch, wondering if he had any idea where they were going, but he just shrugged and held out his hands, wanting the pipe and lighter. Handing them over, Ryan looked out on the blur of tie-dyed shirts and long hair, the faces clouded by darkness and smoke.
The show’s finale had been miserable for him. Being deprived of the opportunity to say goodbye to her––and to have sex with her one last time––stung him more deeply than he could have anticipated.
When the concert was over, he pushed aggressively toward the exit, triggering angry shouts from those in front of him. He jogged through the parking lot, finding an empty space where Laura’s hatchback had been.
Mitch caught up with him. He took a deep breath and nodded, seeming relieved. “Fuck it, man. They’re gone.”
They went over to Ryan’s car and got in. The sounds of laughter and revelry bled through the sealed doors.
“Are you sure you’re okay to drive?” Mitch asked.
Ryan nodded. He was as okay as he had been after most of the shows they had seen, which meant that while he was still feeling the effects of the cannabis, he felt he could get them without incident to wherever they were spending the night.
“Maybe they’re at the motel.” The four of them were staying at a rundown place fifteen miles away. Appearing permanently out of commission, its pool was covered with a sagging black tarp.
“Not a chance,” Mitch answered. “They wanted to get away from us.” He shrugged. “It’s for the best, really.”
Ryan was torn between angry disagreement and passive acceptance. He and Kate were at different stages in their lives and would be separated by thousands of miles. The incompatibility of their backgrounds would likely pose problems as well. Whereas his father was an in-house lawyer for Pepsico, hers was an independent plumber. While his mom was a lapsed Catholic who found the Grateful Dead unappealing––their music inferior in every way, she liked to point out, to that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Fleetwood Mac––Kate’s was a devout evangelical who was convinced that the Dead were every bit as wicked as their name and skeletal imagery suggested.
“It’s fitting,” Ryan said, “how ‘Scarlet Begonias’ was playing when she took off. I associated her with that song.”
“Really?” Mitch asked.
It was an observation that Ryan had refrained from sharing with Kate out of fear of seeming overly sentimental. “Is that so hard to believe? You know, the song’s about randomly meeting this beautiful, ideal woman.”
“Yeah. It is. You might want to try listening to the lyrics sometime.” He started the car.
“And you might want to try being a little more realistic.” Mitch was a complete cynic when it came to women and believed that long-term relationships were best avoided altogether and that short-term ones should be as free as possible of emotional commitment.
Ryan’s car followed an old van out of the parking lot. Its back was plastered with stickers that advocated such predictable causes as vegetarianism (“Love animals––don’t eat them!”), drug legalization, and saving the rain forest.
One showed the common Dead symbol of the multicolor dancing bears. They marched in a neat line, a rainbow arcing over them. Below them was written, “The future is here. We are it. We are on our own.”
Ryan’s eyes lingered on the words, his mind not fully processing them. He spoke softly, more to himself than to his passenger. “I just wish I had kept the door open for further communication with her.”
Mitch sighed loudly. “Give me a break, all right? We got three thousand miles of driving ahead of us.”
Yet fifteen years later as Ryan exited the subway at 77th Street, he could not help feeling oddly optimistic. He looked up at the solid blanket of gray above him, hoping the rain would hold off until he was inside the cafe.
Kate had tracked him down a few weeks earlier. In the concise messages they exchanged, she revealed little about herself other than her plans to visit a few friends on the East Coast, starting in Boston and working her way down to Washington. She would be staying with her cousin in New York, and if Ryan was available, she hoped to meet briefly with him. His efforts to elicit more information from her proved fruitless. She said she preferred to communicate in person.
He fantasized about getting her back to his apartment. Once there, they could open a window, light some candles, and listen to the Dead while they smoked the high-quality, hydroponic weed that he stored in the vegetable drawer of his refrigerator. If all went well, then the next stop in their reunion, he hoped, would be his queen-sized bed.
The Upper East Side was known more for its physicians’ offices, elegant brownstones, and crass bar scene than for its coffeehouses. Yet the one Kate had found seemed like a nice place. Its name, Infusions, was written on its window in elegant, flowing letters. Peeking through the glass, he glimpsed couches and tables but no one who might have been Kate.
Ryan opened the door and entered, his nostrils filling with the aroma of spices. In front of him was a counter behind which a barista was stationed. To his left was a wall whose shelves were stocked with tins of tea and coffee and bags of gourmet cookies. On the other side of it was a room he had not noticed from the street.
He went in, his eyes passing over a quartet of Asians before settling on the slim blonde who sat alone in the back. Wearing wire-frame glasses, she looked up from a book, her lips forming a crooked smile whose sophistication took Ryan by surprise.
Striding toward her, delighted by how good she looked, he grinned in a way that was considerably goofier. “Kate,” he said. “Hey.”
She stood, extending her hand. “Hello, Ryan.”
She was slender in a healthy, supple sort of way––she obviously took care of herself. Her face, too, had aged nicely, her jawline more angular than he remembered, her cheekbones a bit more prominent. Her hair, not surprisingly, had darkened, taking on a sandy, uneven hue, and the bronze tan he remembered had been replaced by a much milder one. She apparently spent a decent amount of time outdoors yet took sensible precautions. He imagined her hiking up mountains that rose dramatically out of the desert, her head covered by a wide-brimmed hat, a dab of sunblock on her nose.
“It’s nice to see you again, Kate.”
“Nice to see you as well,” she replied. Her tone made him uneasy––it seemed to have an undercurrent of hostility.
He looked down into her cup. A frothy swirl floated on its surface. “Is that a cappuccino?”
She nodded. “The coffee here is a lot better here than in Minnesota.”
“Minnesota? Is that where you live now?”
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”
His earlier suspicion was confirmed. Her voice definitely had an edge to it. He placed his umbrella on the floor and said, “Why don’t I get myself a cup of this better-than-Minnesota coffee and come right back?”
She smiled, making a gesture that was akin to shooing away a fly.
Stepping into the other room, he wondered if his heart rate was in fact accelerating or if he was only imagining it. There was no doubt, however, about the reality of the erection he felt coming on. She looked even better than he had allowed himself to hope she might.
He approached the counter. The barista engaged him with an impassive stare, her dark tresses enlivened by a purple stripe.
Receiving his drink, Ryan proceeded carefully back to the table. He often got flustered when he was nervous, and it was all too easy for him to imagine himself tripping with spectacular clumsiness, sending the cup and its contents sailing through the air as he clung futilely to the saucer.
Outside, the rain generated a dull roar. Thick drops pelted the red Porsche that was parked across the street. It gleamed like a shiny apple.
Taking his seat, he pointed out the window. “I’d say we got here just in time. So Minnesota. What brought you there?”
“Work,” she said. “I’m a teacher.”
Ryan nodded, stirring his coffee. “That’s terrific. What grade?”
“You sound surprised,” she said.
Lifting his spoon, he attempted to gauge the temperature of his coffee but succeeded only in tasting its unappetizingly cool top layer. “I had no idea you were so academically inclined, that’s all.”
“And on what,” she asked, “did you base that assumption?”
The coffee burned his mouth. Her tone was like the rain, cool and demoralizing. He sensed that she also had an agenda but that hers, unlike his, did not involve sex or drugs or even a pleasant, nostalgic conversation. “I must have assumed, wrongly, that since you went to Arizona State-“
“Arizona,” she corrected him.
“Forgive me. Arizona. I guess I don’t think of students who attend big public universities as being the sort who go on to careers in academia, that’s all.” He drank, regretting his words as soon as he spoke them.
She smiled. “How very Eastern elitist of you.”
Ryan shrugged. “I’ve been called worse things.”
She sat back. “So are you and Mitch still friends?”
“We are. We see each other pretty regularly.”
“Oh, yeah? How’s he doing?”
“Really, really well.” Ryan was being truthful. Sometimes when he was at Mitch’s house and he saw the love and affection that his wife and kids had for him, he could not help feeling jealous. “He’s married and has two beautiful daughters.”
“So does Mitch also work in the financial industry?”
“No. Not at all.” From the way she inflected her voice, Ryan sensed she viewed his profession with skepticism and maybe even contempt. She would probably be surprised, he thought, to learn how critical he himself was of many of its practices and assumptions. “He was in sales for a few years, but he never took to it. He’s a police officer, if you can believe it.”
She pointed down at the table. “Here in the city?”
“No, no, no. He moved back to our hometown and married a woman we went to high school with. He’s mellowed out, become totally domesticated and respectable.”
A crack of thunder cut her off before she could reply.
Kate turned her head to look out the window. The road was covered with a sheet of water that shimmered and danced. It was beautiful in its way, even as its damp chill penetrated the walls.
“Remember,” Ryan asked, “how fantastic the weather was for us that summer? We barely got any rain.”
She shrugged. “I’m from Arizona. I can’t say sunshine is that big a deal to me.” She rubbed her chin between her thumb and index finger. “I was about to ask if Mitch still had a beard?”
“He does, but he keeps it trimmed. He’s bald now, too. It looks good on him, actually.”
“And what sort of lawbreakers does one encounter in your hometown?”
“Mainly Type A professionals who drive too fast in their BMWs. On weekends, he breaks up the parties that high school kids throw when their parents are out of town. You know, the sort of parties he and I used to organize when we were that age.”
“Does Mitch still use illegal substances?”
“No, not at all. He hardly even drinks anymore. He’s become Mr. Responsible.”
“How about you?” she asked. “Do you still use substances?”
He shrugged. “I still indulge every now and again. And you?”
She shook her head. “I had some bad experiences in college.”
It was not the response he had hoped for. He took a long sip of his coffee. “What do you mean? What happened?”
Leaning over the table, she spoke more softly. “It wasn’t the drugs themselves that were a problem so much as the fact that using them made me more vulnerable to scuzzy guys who wanted to take advantage of me.”
“You always have to be careful, I guess. There are a lot of bad guys out there.”
She rolled her eyes, accentuating the obviousness of the point he made. His heart sank a bit more.
“What happened to Laura influenced me as well,” she said.
He sensed that the story would not be a happy one. “So you two are still in touch, huh?”
“Sort of. It’s not as if we have much in common anymore.”
“What’s she up to?”
“She never left Phoenix,” Kate said. “She’s divorced with two kids.”
He drank deeply and said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Her ex is a total loser, but that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is she’s a meth addict.”
“That’s horrible.” During the recent boom years, he had been at more than a few parties where he had been offered cocaine. He had always refused, explaining to one clean-cut, neophyte investment banker that he had been a Deadhead in his youth, and that his drug of choice would always be one that made him less hyper and aggressive, not more, to which the kid, not following him at all, had replied, “A whathead?”
“I’ve heard the horror stories about that stuff,” Ryan said. “I’m glad I don’t have any personal experience with it.”
“I saw Laura at Christmastime. She promised me she had kicked the habit and was off the stuff for good. So we’re sitting in her living room, having coffee.” She lifted her cup, drawing a faint parallel with her present situation. “She looked thin to me, but she’s always been thin, so I didn’t think much of it. But she was talking too fast, and her eyes were just off, you know? So we’re talking, and she thinks she sees a stain on the table. Her house is immaculate, by the way, and compulsive cleaning is a warning sign that someone might be using. So she starts rubbing the nonexistent stain with her napkin, and I’m like, ‘Laura, what are you doing? There is nothing there.’
“And it’s like she knows she’s slipped up, but she doesn’t want to admit it, so she flies into a rage. ‘Yes, there is something there,’ she says, and then said something that I was incapable of noticing it because I was a ‘hippy slob lesbian.'”
That Laura would describe her friend in such vile terms was disturbing. But the possibility that Kate might be a lesbian dismayed him even more.
A gust of wind shook the glass, raindrops splattering against it. Kate set down her cup and massaged her closed eyelids. “Her son and daughter were watching TV in the next room, but they came in when they heard the screaming. They stood there, looking at me with these wide, innocent eyes, like they wanted me to save them. And then she turns to her kids and starts screaming at them. I got the hell out of there. What else could I do?”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said. “That’s horrible.”
She shook her head, seeming oddly annoyed by his sympathy. “I can’t say it was much fun.” She glanced out the window, then back at him, a bit angry. “So tell me? What were you hoping would result from our meeting like this?”
“This was your idea, remember?”
“Still, you must have had some expectations regarding it.”
“I didn’t expect anything to come of it. I just thought it would be nice to see you again, that’s all.”
“Really?” she asked, unconvinced.
He sipped his cappuccino, then wiped his lips with a napkin. “I thought if it went well, we might meet at my apartment and partake in a certain herbal product I have on hand.”
She nodded. “And what else did you have planned for us?”
“I don’t know, I thought we might do something crazy like listen to some Grateful Dead songs.”
Her irritation with him became more pronounced. “Before or after you defiled me?”
He could not help laughing. “Defiled you? What are you, a consecrated holy site?”
She swept her hand in front of her torso. “From the moment you walked in, it was perfectly clear what your intentions were.”
“Thus proving,” he said, “that I am a heterosexual male who likes thin, athletic blondes. In other words, I am what you would call normal.” He sat back. “What are you a professor of, anyway?”
“And is there a certain area in which you specialize?”
She sipped her coffee. “Women’s issues.”
“So was there a reason,” he asked, “why that subject was of such interest to you?” He hoped there was a specific explanation, such as a fondness for the novels of the Brontë sisters or her having calculated that such a specialization made her more marketable to universities.
“Part of it I attribute to the backward, sexist environment in which I grew up. And part of it,” she said, “I attribute to you.”
Ryan wondered to what extent she was joking. “Excuse me?”
“Do you even recall the conversation we had as we drove to that last concert?”
“Yes. I do. I remember you being upset, which was perfectly understandable. I was leaving in the morning.”
Her composure deteriorated further. “Oh, so I was only upset because you were leaving. Is that it?”
“You’re going to have to fill me in on the particulars because I can’t remember them that well. It was fifteen years ago.”
“I believe your exact words were, ‘Will you please shut up? I really cannot deal with this right now.'”
Concentrating, he recalled another aspect of that day. “I remember the road conditions being really scary and that people were driving like maniacs. If I did say that to you, and I’m sorry if I did, maybe it was because I was focused on getting us to our destination safely.”
His explanation flustered her. “The specific details aren’t important. What I took from my experience with you remains the same.”
“And what was that?” he asked. “What valuable lesson did I impart?”
She leaned closer. “That men aren’t worth it.”
Her statement affected him in a way she could not have intended, as he had recently reached a similar conclusion about women. Several of his ex-girlfriends had turned out to be little more than gold diggers, their interest in him based entirely on his having a job in financial services. Those few who seemed to have potential all disqualified themselves in one way or another––one had insisted that any children she had be raised Jewish, another had kept him in the dark about her psychiatric history, and a third had been horrified by his occasional marijuana use.
“So does that mean you’re a lesbian now?”
“No,” she said. “I’m not attracted to women.”
The room’s other party was leaving. They zipped up their backpacks and pushed in their chairs, readying their umbrellas as they headed out.
“We had a good time together, though, didn’t we?” Ryan asked. “Even if it didn’t last very long.”
“Nineteen days,” she said. “That’s all it was.”
He nodded, wistful. “From Louisville to Oakland.”
His sentimentality annoyed her. She looked at the wallpaper, its soothing, plaid pattern comprised of yellows and pinks.
He glanced out the window. The storm had weakened considerably. “You never told me how long you were in town for.”
“I hope you’re not getting your hopes up,” she said. “Because nothing is going to happen between us.”
“I know. I know.” He shrugged. “So when are you leaving?”
“I take the train to Philadelphia in the morning. And tonight I have plans with my cousin.”
He removed his iPod from his pocket and untangled its headphone cord. “Do you remember what song was playing when you ran off?”
“No,” she said, seeming amused in spite of herself. “I don’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m afraid I don’t listen to the Dead anymore.” Pronouncing the band’s name seemed to embarrass her. “I outgrew them some time ago.”
He offered her the ends of his headphones. With some reluctance, she inserted them into her ears. He spun the click-wheel, scrolling through the song list until he found “Scarlet Begonias.”
Wincing, she motioned for him to lower the volume. He complied.
She listened for several seconds, then removed the headphones and said, “All right, I might possibly remember it.”
Ryan doubted the extent of her forgetfulness. Given how she was suddenly playing along with him, he sensed her claim of having lost all interest in men was similarly exaggerated.
“Want to go to Central Park?” he asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
She pointed out the window. “For one thing, it’s raining.”
“Barely,” he said. “It’s practically sprinkling.”
Kate looked again more carefully. “I wouldn’t call that sprinkling.”
“And we’ve got umbrellas, so what difference does it make? We’ll have the park to ourselves.”
“But won’t the ground be all wet and muddy?” she asked.
He sighed for hyperbolic effect. “Afraid of soiling our fine footwear, are we?” Peering over the edge of the table, Ryan asked, “What have you got on?”
She displayed a well-worn white sneaker.
Ryan showed her his black loafers. “I’m wearing more delicate shoes than you are.”
“And what are we going to do in the park?”
“Walk around. Have you ever been there before?”
She hesitated. “No.”
“All right, then. It’s settled. You can’t visit New York without seeing Central Park. We’re going.” He grabbed his umbrella and got to his feet. It felt good to stand again.
He held the door open for her, then followed her outside, the air a cool, refreshing mist. They opened their umbrellas.
“Onward,” he said, extending his hand in the direction the park.
Extending her arm, she caught drops on her palm. “Sprinkling, huh?”
One of the Dead’s most famous lyrics popped into his head, and he could not help vocalizing it. “‘Sunshine daydream,'” he said.
She pursed her lips. “Please. No more Grateful Dead references, okay?”
“All right. Agreed.”
The sidewalk was shiny and wet. A peck on the cheek, Ryan figured, was the most intimate contact he and Kate would share before she left town. But as they marched through the rain, he was optimistic they would meet again before long, that this was potentially the start of something.
“It’s been a while since I’ve done anything this spontaneous,” Ryan said.
She nodded. “I can relate.”
They stopped at the corner. A flurry of vehicles rushed through the intersection, among them a pair of bicycles, their brave riders wrapped in spandex and ponchos.
“I think I may have been wrong about you,” Kate said.
He turned to look at her. “Oh yeah? How so?”
“You’re… okay,” she said.
Her assessment, while barely even a compliment, nonetheless thrilled him. “Just okay?” he asked. “Is that all?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling slightly as she gazed toward the park. “That’s all.”