Regular Visitors

Monica Ferrell
Photo by Roman Kuglov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Inside every body is a blue wardrobe, and inside the wardrobe is an unremarkable lockbox, and inside Mila’s was a picture of the man behind the counter at the café called Regular Visitors. His skin resembled a lamb’s—that is, if you took a lamb and butchered it, then sheared it free of hair and massaged into it expensive toners and those moisturizers from Korea or Kiehl’s that even the straight men among millennials seemed to wear. About as long ago as this man was old, she and her college friends used to play a game called Killed in the Initial Attack. There was nothing to the game beyond a mean-spirited hypothetical conjecture in which you imagined a scenario like the one from that movie Red Dawn, where America was being invaded by a foreign enemy. Who among them would go down first, stupidly wounded by the first tank, innocently stepping on the first grenade? Now Mila had a good answer for a game she no longer played. The man behind the counter at Regular Visitors would. His teeth, presented in a smile each time he slid a coffee across the marble toward her, were guileless.

“What will you have?” That’s the way he took an order. It was so deferential, so Old World, especially in combination with the starched white apron he always wore, the half pencil he’d occasionally lift from the nook above his ear to jot down complex instructions on a little flip-top book of graph-lined paper, furrowing his fine forehead with the effort. He seemed to self-identify as a kind of writer; now and then she’d spotted him putting that poor mustard-colored notebook through its paces even when only she was around, and this one time when she rested a novel she was reading on the countertop as she poked in her wallet for her regular-visitor punch card, he’d twisted his long torso around to her side to read its title, sounding its words out with effort like a child. “Is this a good book?”

She could see the bluish muscle working in his neck as he spoke. “He’s Norwegian,” she said, idiotically.

Puckering his lips, the man on the other side of the counter put his hands to either side of the cover and studied it as though it were going to be on a test. “I’ve heard of him. Do you pronounce the K?”

“Yes,” she’d breathed.

He nodded. “I thought so,” he said, and grinned, a gymnast who’d stuck his landing.

When her college friends used to play Killed in the Initial Attack, they’d rank Mila among the last to go, as she remembered, one of the final survivors. They said something about her spying—no, it was that she would turn double agent, using her sexual wiles to save herself with whichever side won. Mata Hari, they’d called her. It was vaguely dishonorable, the light they’d cast her in, tinged with a generalized racism made worse by the fact they clearly didn’t know Mata Hari wasn’t Indian, or even a real Asian at all. Odd to think how she had lost her wiles so thoroughly that she was now beneath the invaders’ notice and could escape their bullets by simply not being seen. She had attained the fabled power of cockroaches, she guessed, since like them she had become imperishable, a survivor who would persist through anything.

On Tuesday mornings, Mila made breakfast for and dressed her five-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, then gathered them into coats, hats, gloves, and shoes and carried the littler one while holding hands with the bigger one down two flights of stairs. On her arms were threaded five bags: bag for Lily’s daycare, bulging with diapers and wipes; bag for Jeet’s school, heavy with lunch and snacks; bag with the breast pump, adapter, brick-sized ice pack, and bottles; her own work bag filled with books and papers; and her handbag. Sometimes Jeet would pretend to trip, lurching the whole jointed contraption of them forward and wrenching her lower back; sometimes he would demur at moving, sitting down on a stair and filling the building’s shared hallway with his refusal. One morning, as Mila was balancing it all while locking the apartment door behind them, Lily had leaped out of her arms and dived headfirst toward the gap between banisters, almost plunging two stories to the ground floor tiles. Mila couldn’t get that feeling out of her mind, or rather out of her body—the sudden feathery lightness she’d felt prickling along her forearms, how she clutched at air and screamed out No but in a voice so hoarse it was barely audible, hadn’t even startled her kids. That was the first morning when, before taking the train from Brooklyn to the far end of Manhattan, she had decided to treat herself to something nice and stepped through the doors of Regular Visitors.

The place was as much an exhibition space as a café: dazzlingly white, with flatware and notebooks and luxury goods for sale that might have been taken from a museum, even the ebony- handled toilet plungers and the curved money clip that gleamed fatly under recessed lights like a Brâncuși sculpture. For a moment Mila thought she was alone, but as her eyes acclimated she saw a figure at the bar’s far end. He’d been wiping the marble down but stopped what he was doing and drew close, clutching the white rag to his chest. Something swelling and orchestral was pouring in wet pieces from the speaker above the counter—Wagner, maybe. His blue eyes searched her face so unironically it pulled from her an embarrassed smile.

That earliest meeting had been back in October; now it was the first week of December, and she had not missed a single Tuesday at the café since. Sometimes the man behind the counter would offer her something for free—a pain au chocolat, a slice of lard bread—gazing at her so beseechingly Mila was forced to look down, eyes practically watering from the situation’s sheer awkwardness, as she stammered something about not being much of a fan of chocolate or of lard. Sometimes the man would caution her to stay warm, and, if she was struggling with her remaining bags plus the napkins and cup, he’d stride from behind his marble counter and with an extravagant gesture throw open the door for her as though its massive metal weight were just a piece of tinsel. Today he’d done that, coming so near she caught a whiff of his scent, sweet and powdery, a retro-barbershop kind of cleanness.

“Are you going far?” His blue eyes were trained on the blue distance.

“Just the end of the world,” she muttered.

“Sounds nice.” His breath streaked the white air between them as he turned toward her with a wistful expression.

Was it her imagination, or was the man behind the counter at Regular Visitors going too far with his courtesy lately?

She was slightly shaking while he stood, just outside the café’s front door, watching her as she fit one slippery-soled boot after another down the iced steps of the subway entrance at Bergen Street. Was it her imagination, or was the man behind the counter at Regular Visitors going too far with his courtesy lately? It was almost insulting how he stood there grinning on the sidewalk, with his hands on his hips as though to show off the fact that the sleeves of his white button-down shirt were rolled up when it was about twenty-three degrees out of doors, as if the cold didn’t touch him at all! No, it was his confidence that was insulting, how sure he was of his effect upon her and others, sure that she would want him to rest his gaze on her from his position at the top of the stairs. The truth was, she would so much rather that he were more like a secret in a recess, a jewel hidden inside a wall, and in fact she would prefer that he didn’t speak to her at all. He reminded her of the Barberini Faun, in that he too was a hunk of white stone, albeit an artwork sculpted by God, a thing of beauty she wanted to enjoy simply with her eyes and in private, the way some people might enjoy high-quality caviar or thousand-dollar bottles of whisky or solitary hikes up a mountainside to stand on a peak peering down into a lonely valley. Next time she’d make a point of flashing her wedding and engagement rings. Or she’d drop by after picking Jeet up from school so the man could see she was very much living en famille. Well, no, that was probably overkill, one wouldn’t want him thinking of her as broken meats.

After the F train she latched on to the A, and finally the chimerical 1, then having hurtled hundreds of blocks underground at last she walked through the pinned-back black gates on Broadway, crossing the red-brick esplanade through trees wound round and round with holiday lights, up the giant white steps, three flights, past the circular fountains (gone dry for the season) and the statue of Alma Mater, to enter the over-radiated atmosphere of Philosophy Hall, where she sweated through another two-flight climb carrying only her own three bags, in one of which lay the battered copy of the medieval poem Pearl she’d bought almost twenty years ago, when she’d been a student here herself, at that bookstore around the corner which was now a noodle joint.

That was the trouble with being anywhere, or simply being, long enough. Everything became a version of its former self, or rather a collage of its former selves. When she’d first encountered the west block of Broadway between 115th and 116th Streets it had meant nothing to her, but in two decades it hadn’t gone anywhere and neither had she, so now she was sick of passing it by without having any idea where she’d rather be. Whenever she entered this room, Philosophy 307, part of her kept on walking down the corridor to the spot where she had taken a Dante seminar, yearlong, on the Divine Comedy. She remembered sitting at an elf-sized triangular desk learning about how in Heaven time doesn’t exist. In Paradise it’s totum simul, everything all at once, in a state beyond change and without loss. Back then totum simul had seemed like just another idea crazy enough to be worthy of the Middle Ages, like angels dancing on pins or sea creatures spitting arms and legs up for the Resurrection, but then again it also seemed she’d heard about the concept only yesterday, just as it seemed like yesterday when she last heard her father’s voice, though he’d now been dead an entire year. She used to sit in the diminutive desks but now sat at the large table at the classroom’s head, she used to be too shy to talk, but now her students had to laugh through her jokes, she used to shiver when people would insist they were stifling, but now she could forbid them from letting the classroom’s heat leak through an opened window, and that’s how you knew twenty years had gone by, she supposed.

Today the classroom percolated with that fluttery energy that comes in December, everyone wanting to know about the final paper or finding a way to mention where they were traveling for the holidays, trying hard to skirt the assigned text as though it were a bathroom accident on the floor. Mila was only using the Pearl poem as an example of Middle English alliteration, but when she read out the lines “In Jerusalem was my lemman slayn / And rent on Rode wyth boyes bolde” and “Wyth boffetes was Hys face flayn / That was so fayr on to byholde,” Francesca Weiss put up her narrow hand. “Don’t you think it’s kind of weird that the text goes on and on about how Jesus looks? What does it matter that his face was so fair to behold?”

“I had the same thought,” said Arthur, who only ever sat in the corner, where he had access to two of the miniature desks, one of which was occupied by his snacks and the shoe he would invariably remove at some point during the proceedings. “Except for me it was why so much emphasis gets placed on the pearl’s beauty. It’s kind of, you know, objectifying. It kind of made me feel uncomfortable, as a man. For what it says, about men.”

“Not to mention the inherent exoticism,” sighed Fiona. “I mean, practically the third line of the book says that the pearl is out of the Orient.”

“I think it’s the second line,” corrected Arthur.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s the third.”

“Does anyone have the book on them?” asked Francesca Weiss. “I could probably call it up on my phone,” said Whitney, who was always on her phone.

“These are really great points,” Mila concurred, “though, ah, I wonder if we could spin the question of beauty or of desire differently? Could we consider the text itself a kind of pearl? I mean, a manmade one of course, but nevertheless a polished artifact achieved through suffering—kind of like the way the oyster works, with a grain of sand? What do we think the poem is trying to accomplish here on a sonic level? Let’s look, for example, at how these b sounds work.” But there was an extremely obnoxious person walking down the corridor talking at full volume, and that’s when Mila made her fateful error, which was rising to close the door, because when she did she saw an old friend and rival holding her phone horizontally to shout into the mouthpiece, and worse still this person saw Mila see her.

“Sharmila? Oh my God—Mila!” Down and up blinked the mascaraed lashes that always lent their familiar dinner-plate face the air of an astonished blue-eyed doll. “What, are you teaching? Oh man, I forgot you did that. I wouldn’t want to interrupt. I was just down the hall doing a guest lecture, but listen—what are you up to on Thursday? I’ll text you,” she just managed to say before Mila shut the door in her face.

“Holy shit that was Bianca Singer,” Francesca Weiss announced. “That’s so sick,” said Fiona. “I am, like, a superfan of The Heart’s History.”

The Heart’s History is the gateway drug,” Francesca assured her. “You need to read Grand House. You know she only writes a novel if she has, like, a visitation from a character and falls in love?”

“That’s funny,” said Mila, distinctly recalling Bianca explaining how, with her first book, she’d plonked herself down on a kitchen stool and refused to stand up until she forced out a plot.

“I get so nervous around real, published writers.” Arthur fanned his face with a hand.

“You know, Arthur, I’m a real, published writer too,” said Mila.

“Oh, I’m sorry, professor, I didn’t know that,” Arthur offered affably. “Congratulations.”

She was on the phone with her husband when she got the text.

“You should go,” he said immediately. “I won’t get back in time, but I’ll find a sitter.”

“Oh really, and when was the last time you found a sitter?”

“Come on. This is important. How many of that guy’s books have you read?”

“A lot of people read his books. That’s why they can charge so much for these tickets.”

“Well, you have a free one now. You should go.”

“Listen,” she said, talking as low as she could while still exceeding the urgent voice of the breast pump, which wheezed like a blacksmith’s bellows as it tugged on her tits. “You know she only invited me to watch her interview him so I would squirm there feeling jealous of her.”

Even in the harsh light of the G train she looked different when she discreetly tilted the phone’s camera to reflect her face.

“You have nothing to be jealous of. If you wanted to write that kind of star-crossed lovers schmaltz she peddles you’d do it with your eyes closed. And whatever, it doesn’t matter why she invited you. When was the last time you went out and did something that was just for yourself? You need to be at those literary events. People are going to forget you were ever a writer. And wear those new boots of yours—the black ones.”

“The thigh-highs?”

“And get yourself one of those blow-outs. You know if you don’t use my gift certificate it’s just wasted money—”

Her twenty-minute timer rang; Mila got off the call and buckled herself back in the nursing brassiere’s cups, black rounds as wide and old-fashioned as the ornamental blinders you might find on horses gussied up in a folk style. She disinfected and packed her stuff, then stood by the office window watching some boys in the esplanade below torment or be tormented by a squirrel, it was too far away to say for sure. What wonderful liberty they had, an afternoon at their disposal, discoveries everywhere to make, while already this minute at the window had been too long for her—she’d have to scramble to make it back for Jeet’s 2:30 dismissal. When was the last time she’d gone to any kind of event? She hadn’t even gotten to the gym in a month. Why not go, if just to prove to Bianca she could, that her recent reclusiveness wasn’t as extreme as it seemed. She could take a shower and dress in clothes that wouldn’t get tugged on by sticky fingers, clothes from that part of the closet these days she only looked at but never attempted, then leave the apartment and spend a couple of hours with no one touching her at all: that would be worth it.

The air outside the hair salon smelled of cookies from the artisanal bake shop opposite; the sky was light blue burnished with bronze when she entered but had become a black perforated with the city’s manifold coruscations—traffic lights, streetlights, helicopters, satellites—when she passed again through its glass doors. All Mila could now smell was the chemical hairspray; all she could taste was the champagne from the second gratis flute she’d downed, which so relaxed and energized the body she didn’t feel the cold at all, though from a numbness in her toes she could tell it was real. She was also wearing foundation, some gestural blush, and eye pencil, so rare an endeavor that it was the identical eye pencil her mother had taken her to buy when she was a college sophomore which had lasted through all the countries and coasts she’d trekked to ever since. Even in the harsh light of the G train she looked different when she discreetly tilted the phone’s camera to reflect her face. She looked alive: the brisk wind had brought color to her cheeks and made her eyes somehow sparkle. As fast-moving and profitless as the appearance of a shooting star, a thought crossed her mind: what if she’d first ventured to grab an evening coffee, walked into Regular Visitors, seen the man from behind the counter, and more importantly let him see her—what she could look like when she wasn’t fresh from wiping baby drool off her neck! It seemed important he know she had not always been that way, just a vessel for people to break out of. She had once been the sort of person who made a bicyclist fall over in the street by double-taking too hard on spotting her in a summer dress. Even if it had been beside the point, Francesca Weiss’s question wasn’t a bad one: why was the Pearl poem so obsessed with beauty, why was everyone obsessed, why did they confuse beauty with the good, and why did they move so ineluctably toward it?

Because the champagne was still roaring through her arterioles, lighting up circuits in the switchboard of her arms and legs so that she circumambulated the same block of Clinton Hill one and a half times before locating an entrance to the auditorium; because the program was already under way, so that the only people likely to notice her were the disgruntled pair thrust into a gash of light from the door she heaved her whole weight upon; because the only seat she could locate as she climbed was terrible, lofted in the balcony, Mila settled into the prospect of a wasted evening, cocooned in the dark. The famous author had a voice comically high, while Bianca was attempting a husky, pillow-talky affect, neither of them aiming to reach the balcony heights. The man nearest Mila, a well-groomed bear in a lumberjack shirt, kept sighing, scratching his beard, and crossing and recrossing his arms when distance ate away any hope of comprehension while the audience below broke into a knowing chuckle. For her part Mila made an easy peace with the undifferentiated murmuring, even felt liberated by it; here she was alone with her thoughts in a cleared-out space, like the sole clapper of an enormous bell. In such moments, precious as they were, she could let her mind go and would get swept into some past memory of now-impossible travel, no specific site worthy of a tourist’s notice, but, say, an unremarkable square in Vienna where she had paused to consult her map, or a twist in the bazaar in Varanasi from where, as evening came on without warning, she had heard the bicyclists jangling their bells, all at once, in a chorus.

Down below, the famous author and Bianca had apparently entered a new phase of the evening’s entertainment, a finale of fast repartee unhearable by anyone, perhaps not even by themselves. The whole scene offered farce on farce: there was the farce of pretending to listen, but if you did listen and could hear there was also the farce of pretending to find what you heard valuable; then of course there was the further possible farce of the art in question, into which the famous author spun his life with such speed and prolixity he was like a Rumpelstiltskin who didn’t bother at all troubling the piles of straw that he called gold. Then the audience was clapping; lights flooded the hall with the misery of LED bulbs. It was ironic: every shop and restaurant had been this drably lit through Mila’s childhood, but now in India people burned incandescents, while in America everything looked like shit. Mila wound her way through the aisles clogged with bodies, so many, she had not thought any author could bring out so many, a process so lengthy that by the time she reached ground level Bianca was already finished greeting people and waved her over.

“Wasn’t that a nightmare?” Bianca raked at her blond hair with long fingers.

“I thought you were fantastic,” Mila insisted, squeezing her shoulder.

“You don’t think I was too…?” Bianca’s lips pinched into a clover leaf.

“Not at all. I mean—I missed a part of it…”

“Yeah, I saw you came late.”

“Sorry—”

“Please. I know. Kids. God. Who’s this?” Bianca thrust a hand out and blinked the doll-lashed eyes.

Standing at Mila’s elbow was the man from behind the counter at Regular Visitors. “I’m Boden,” he said, earnestly gripping Bianca’s hand. “Thank you for doing such important work.” Then the hair on Mila’s nape tickled as he leaned in to whisper, “I thought I might see you here.”

She had never been so near him: the sensation was like stepping off a cliff. But she wouldn’t give herself away. She dug her thumbnails into the vulnerable flesh at the top of her palms, sharpening herself. “So, thank you very much for reaching out with that ticket!” she said to Bianca. “Really thoughtful.”

“Of course. I knew you were such a fan of the writing. I mean honestly it should have been you up here. I just happened to have stayed with him at the castle—you know, I’m sure you’ve heard about that countess in Italy? who hosts people? Anyway, that’s really the reason I know him, so when his publicist asked who in New York he wanted to do this interview, I was at the top of their list. So, listen, ah, both of you, uh, why don’t you come in ten minutes across the street—we’re all going—there’s a great little wine bar—it’s hard to find—hang on a sec.” And Bianca darted off to a far corner for a whispered congress with the publicist.

“Hi.” He said the word like a joke, pursing his full lips, tilting his face down and looking up at her through his lashes in a facsimile of feeling abashed. He was older than she’d ever guessed, thirtyish.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Surprised?”

“Just a little.” She found she was holding herself with so complete a rigidity that she might break soon, starting with her shoulders.

“Scared?”

“What’s that?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t want you to think I was stalking you.”

“Ha, no, not scared.” With the toe of one black thigh-high she traced a rip in the carpet.

“That’s good,” he said. “It’s good to see you. You look—different.” He tilted his head to one side, surveying her openly. Only now did she notice he was wearing a black dress shirt and black pants over lace-up brown ankle boots that gleamed, with not a white apron in sight.

“Are you going to come?” The words were almost choking her; she had to cough and repeat herself. “Are you coming to the bar?”

“Nah,” said the man from behind the counter at Regular Visitors, “I don’t think she really meant me.” He said it with simplicity and humility, throwing his coat, an expensive-looking camel number, over his shoulders, then strung his neck with a white scarf, and the result was that an explosion of scent descended over her in invisible particles of olfactory masculinity—it was the same sweetish shaving smell from the other day plus something muskier, probably his sweat.

When he wasn’t smiling, the Norwegian resembled a wolf, a gray one, with small hard eyes meant to peer through the dark of some tundral winter.

“Doesn’t matter why she invited you,” Mila said, “you should come,” she said, and finally, “I’m going.”

So at the bottom of a flight of stairs, Boden held the door open for her to step out into a fresh night fragrant with the scent of new-cut Christmas trees and edged with woodsmoke. In the palace of possibilities, behind the twist of some other doorknob, a different Mila was calling an Uber in order to flash down DeKalb and Atlantic Avenues toward two sleeping children and a cup of tea, but this Mila crossed the strip of street toward the bar, because after all she hadn’t as yet even met the Norwegian, who was probably off for London or Norway in the morning, and in the morning the whole idea that she might be standing here with the man from behind the counter at Regular Visitors would seem like a mirage. He knew this bar very well, he said. He said his brother worked there, though when they got inside Mila saw the designation was purely figurative. Sergio was a half-Japanese Brazilian by way of Petaluma, and a part-time pot dealer, who passed the man from behind the counter at Regular Visitors—Boden—the most elegant pre-rolled joint Mila had ever seen.

Since the author’s publicist made a point of paying only for the author and Bianca while Sergio was comping Boden, Mila allowed him to order for her; put on the spot, she’d asked for a Negroni, something she couldn’t remember having drunk in at least ten years, a single sip of which began assiduously working to wear away her stomach lining.

“What do you think?” Sergio was wiping the rim of a martini glass with lemon rind.

“It’s delicious,” she yelled over the music.

“No, I mean, what do you think of my buddy Boden?”

Suddenly all the blood was in Mila’s face and wouldn’t budge.

“Ha ha. You don’t have to look so worried. He’s a sweetheart. We’ve known each other almost ten years. We used to be roomies. Before he started modeling, he’d never left Wisconsin, but somehow without anything in common we got along great. And here he is, man of the hour!” Sergio slapped Boden’s hand as he returned from God-knows-where, the bathroom probably: his hair seemed freshly combed. He was pretty as a person shouldn’t be; against the December night and the bar’s golden lights he was shining the way fur shines, with his immaculate skin, like a prince out of an ancient epic, hero-tall, as radiant, uncaring, and unfair as glory or beauty ever is.

“How are you feeling,” he wanted to know, licking lemon-sugar off his lips, looking down at her and pressing her arm with a solicitousness that burned a hole.

“I’m feeling fine,” she replied, “I feel good.”

“Want to see something?” Sergio had poured the last of their drinks and was now furiously swiping photos on his phone.

“Oh God, don’t,” Boden moaned, then, to Mila, “he always does this.”

“It’s always good.” Sergio handed her the phone on which was a black-and-white picture of two men roiling in the surf, tilting their bodies together like Greek gods.

“That’s a Bruce Weber.” Boden sounded wistful. He coughed. “Bruce Weber took that portrait of us for a Ralph Lauren campaign.”

“We’re going outside,” Bianca cut in. “People want to smoke.” People was the famous author, a chain-smoker, as it turned out, so he, Bianca, Mila, Boden, the publicist, and a poorly dressed intern who kept stamping her clumsy boots packed an inner courtyard about the size of a well, where the Norwegian smoked and Bianca coughed and Boden offered Mila a toke.

“No thanks,” she said.

“You won’t smoke with me?”

“It isn’t—I’ll just get stuck in the same delusional loop I always do that I burnt out my vocal cords and can’t speak. Trust me, it won’t be fun for anyone.”

Boden furrowed his brows, half-paralyzed by thought. “Maybe that’s a metaphor. It’s a projection about losing your voice. My biggest fear is pretty similar.”

The famous author had overheard this last part; he drew near. “Might I sample some of this? Thank you,” he said, retransferring the skinny joint.

“It’s my pleasure, sir. It’s an honor to meet you. I wish I could do what you do.”

Mila had removed a hand from her coat, but as the Norwegian squinted at Boden over a cigarette he was rolling, now didn’t seem to be the right moment to thrust it forward and introduce herself. “Thank you,” he said again, this time brusque. When he wasn’t smiling, the Norwegian resembled a wolf, a gray one, with small hard eyes meant to peer through the dark of some tundral winter. “You have a fear. You worry the girl doesn’t like you?” His cigarette poked toward Mila. “No? This biggest fear—what can it be?”

“We’re saying our biggest fears?” Bianca was standing in front of her. “I love it.”

“Ants,” said the intern; the joint disappeared into her corner, a coin flashing into the sea.

“Becoming homeless,” said the publicist.

“Probably something to do with my children?” Bianca had on an embarrassed grin as though this question had one right answer she was trying hard to find. “Like a school shooting. You know what I mean,” she nodded at Mila, then blocked her again to explain to the group. “Being a mother, it’s like your heart’s always walking around outside your body.”

Mila’s mind went right to the night nurse, regular nanny, and weekend country-house nanny Bianca used since her babies were out of the womb. “Oh God,” she groaned. It was involuntary, an autonomic exhalation—but Bianca whirled around to brandish her dinner-plate face at her. “I’m sorry.” Mila coughed to recover herself. “Was that a quote from something?”

“I’m quoting me,” Bianca announced. “It’s one of my favorite lines from Grand House.”

“So tell us your fear,” said the Norwegian, who despite his skinniness was surprisingly tall, which allowed him to clap an arm over the shoulders of the man from Regular Visitors.

Boden didn’t seem to notice. He stared down with an enormous concentration. Finally, he glanced up. “It’s that time will forget me.”

“My dear fellow,” replied the author, his high alto breaking already into the gentlest laughter, “in order to be forgotten, time would first have to know who you are.”

A dismal paltry snow began wisping down from the sky, flakes without any conviction or ambition dropping wetly upon them, half-rain already before they hit the railing and wooden beams on the floor where they melted instantly. The author had moved on, was now pointing at the dripping metal railing and explaining something about how the frost giant Ymir was born from the melting of primordial ice, and how we know Ymir from the stories of the Eddas and the epics before them which had lasted hundreds of years, if not thousands, and those skalds were something to make you humble. When he turned up the collar on his bomber jacket and headed for the bar, Bianca and the publicist got in line behind him—the intern had vanished—but Mila pulled on Boden’s arm.

“Sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

In one swift motion he bent low and pressed his mouth to her lips.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“I’m sorry. Did I get the vibe wrong? I felt a vibe. Sorry. You just looked so perfect with the snowflakes in your hair.”

Even without a mirror, Mila knew this to be a lie—the snow was too moist to stay in her hair, for starters—but when Boden said that the least he could do was see her home, she agreed. He wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, if anything, what she should feel was grateful to him; he had given her something she would always have, not the kiss but something sweeter. Boden had said he needed to pick his bike up from across the street, but she’d somehow been expecting a motorcycle or at least a Vespa until he returned to the corner wheeling a ten-speed. Still, when he instructed her to get on the back she just laughed and hopped up. To stay on, she had to wrap her arms around him. What was it like? Warm, sculptural, a man’s torso with two tiers of touch, the soft camel coat and the hardness of the body beneath it. The snow started to become more tangible, dropping from the sky like apple blossoms in April, sticking together in thick ungainly packages as they turned at the Barclays Center and began heading down Atlantic, flying by the locked-up mosques, the Salvation Army and the old post office, then the antiques stores, the closed restaurants, the wonderful toy shop all blue and dormant in the moonish streetlight. One night in college while she was out watching a movie, it snowed steadily throughout, so that when Mila and her friend exited the theater they were shocked to find the way back to their dorm completely trackless; they kicked huge soft piles of white through empty streets—this was about midnight, just as now—watching the snow fall back down in protean shapes and forms like the very definition of the plastic, as they jabbered feverishly about how they wanted to give the rest of their lives to art, how in the service of art life becomes a sort of devotion, and if you were any good at it, as they knew they would be, art repaid you with immortality.

He was not wrong, the man from Regular Visitors, though after tonight she guessed she’d be going instead to Stumptown or Fare & Folk or any of the other cafés in the neighborhood, and anyway this semester was practically kicked. Boden was right. Their fears were similar. When both her children were born, she had imagined she had given birth to old-fashioned analog clocks like the one in the classroom where she taught, and the best thing you could wish for was that those clocks ran on as far forward toward infinity as any human could have a right to. Yet all the while as she rode with Boden clasped in her arms, she kept hearing, In Jerusalem was my lemman slayn, That was so fayr on to byholde, a melody that had crossed nearly seven centuries to enter her, where it had been rotating its clear ribbon of sound in her inner ear for the past three days. Poor old sod, the one who wrote the Pearl poem plus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, last partisan of that Anglo-Saxon prosody purged by his contemporary Chaucer from English poetry—my God, what a beauty he’d made, amazing especially when you considered that no one even remembered his name.

Monica Ferrell is the author of three books of poetry and fiction, most recently You Darling Thing, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award and Believer Book Award in Poetry.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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