Given that the wind was colder than it had ever been for the first week of winter, she could scarcely be surprised to find herself alone on the avenue. Sure, there were twos and threes passing her by, gathered in wool and polyester coats. In every other sense of the word, however, she was alone.
Since breakfast that morning, she not only had not eaten but also had not spoken a word. Not for lack of words, but for lack of an audience. No spectators to her masterful tragedy.
They were having the Mensches over for dinner that night. She’d offered to roast the chicken, but who would really be able to tell the difference, Lise said, between homemade and store-bought? It had been a while since they’d cooked a full, comfortable meal. But a chicken from Camu’s would be well enough when brought home and reheated. Lise was right; no one would tell the difference. A chicken from Camu’s would do.
And so here she was, trekking inevitably beside the park that always seemed to be on the way, no matter where she was headed. The avenue was quiet on her right, the trees even more so on the other side. She always preferred to walk the border, never through, although Camu’s was directly across the park diagonally from their apartment.
She pulled the collar closer around her neck. The wind was growing. A shock of cold draft shot down between her spine and the coat; it had slipped through somewhere, unseen and unnecessary. She dug her hands into the thick-padded pockets, chuckling at the emptiness.
What a funny story to bring home. Losing her wallet not five minutes after leaving home. It’s just like you, her Lise would say, laughing and bright. Silly, silly.
She didn’t like to think of how they met. Things with a start always seemed to have an end, so it was just her idea of self-preservation. They had been young, that was all, young and alive. Full of ideas about everything: life, love, even each other. No beginning, and why would there be? Ideas didn’t begin or end; they floated around the universe, waiting for dreamy minds to snatch at them from Earth.
As the years passed, they really only saw images of one another, reflections in some fluid, one-sided mirror built from those many, many ideas. Lise had always said she thought too much about too much. She tried not to think about this, but sometimes the sunlight would refract off of that mirror at just the right angle and blind her in the eye.
“Love!” There was a musician across the street, not so much strumming his guitar as jerking his palm belligerently across the strings. His song could have been a battle cry. “Love!” he chanted. “Love! Love! Love! All you need, all you neeeeed…”
Most stories are, at their core, about love. She always thought so; nothing else could teach the heart to encompass more emotions than happiness only. Lise told her it couldn’t be so. As a Classics professor, she must know more about stories, but it was still difficult to believe.
The Mensches were her friends—dreaded work-friends—but they followed Lise like a religion. She could answer their questions: why? how? what if? They would spend all day at the office gushing and praising and worshipping her. One of those couples who did everything together and loved each other as loudly as possible, but could never understand it when other couples tried to do the same.
The wind was stronger, the air colder. She turned to gaze longingly inside the park, where the birds had stopped singing, the silence grown deafening. Sometimes she felt the whole world could stop turning, so bored she was.
It was Lise who had invited them for dinner, no particular occasion. (The Mensches were her friends.) Their buildings were only a few blocks or so apart. She had to admit moving to the city was, if nothing else, convenient; they had never minded busy noise, after all. A brownstone or a loft would have been perfect, in Greenwich or SoHo. But Lise preferred living in a skyscraper, as close to the clouds as possible. She was approaching the corner of the park, where she’d have to turn left towards Camu’s.
“Love!” he screamed after her. “Love! Looove!” Maybe she would toss him a penny on the way back, it would be a laugh over dinner.
Her stomach groaned. It tended to growl and grumble when she moved too much, like a child dragged outdoors to spend painful, reluctant hours soaking in the sun. Dinner seemed both years and seconds away; she would really have to find a way to reach Camu’s and buy the chicken, or they would have no dinner to serve the Mensches. Truth be told, she’d never quite liked the taste of chicken, the stringy meat that slipped from bone with nauseating compliance. Perhaps she would pick up a salad, revisit her vegetarian days before Lise stormed into her life with boeuf bourguignon and Ossobuco.
Where was her wallet, anyway, she didn’t know. Perhaps she wouldn’t bother with Camu’s. There was no sign of life in the park, anyway; there could be danger lurking about, for all she knew, though what danger she had little clue. The trees were beginning to hum again, anyway.
Yet the winter sun was ever so high for five o’clock in the afternoon, pouring down in streams upon her face as she lifted her chin to the city-top, like a prayer. She bathed in the sudden warmth for a little while, a cool blanket around her shoulders; the wind stilled, and the dust and grime she hadn’t noticed before cleared in a little seraphic column. Had she stopped walking, or were her feet still carrying her forward?
Her breaths came in small gasps of three, staccato triplets, a hesitant dance. Gray clouds, born of her and the wind and the city, were carried into the park. Love, love, she heard in the distance; somehow it sounded less like a chant now, and the guitar strings seemed plucked, not struck.
Was there no one else in the city, in this park, save for her and the street musician? It had been a while since she’d taken such a lovely, quiet walk—what Lise derisively labeled a “leisurely stroll”—with oaks and honey locusts marching beside her, lindens dappling the sun that swept in golden currents across the cement. Pigeons were flocking above her; it must have been strange to see a human below, usually one of many hurrying in throngs up and down the avenue, now rock-still and alone, so marvelously alone.
As the warmth wrapped around her neck, she mustered up the courage to take another step forward. Camu’s would close in less than half an hour; she might already be too late to pick the best chicken. Quickening her pace, she flashed her wrist to check the time on Lise’s Blancpain. It almost took a second for her to realize she was falling.
It must have been a crack or a lump in the sidewalk. She met the concrete with grace, landing neatly on her side with a bent arm nestled under to protect her neck. Dusting herself off, she stood and pulled her coat tighter. Evening was ushering in the cold; but she was a city goer, and the winter was nothing.
Something buckled her leg as she resumed her stroll. Glancing down, she found her wallet beside her foot, splayed open and inches from her shoe, like a toddler lost and pleading with its fleeing mother. It had been in the pocket of the sweater she wore beneath her coat. She bent down and picked it up. Silly, silly. There was just enough cash inside for a nice Camu’s chicken. Maybe a bottle of wine as well; the Mensches loved that “delicious French kind,” as they called it, waving their hands vaguely and smiling guiltily, affably.
The store was just ahead. A crowd waited at the stoplight, their shadows frozen over the pedestrian crosswalk. Her coat billowed in the wind; she shivered. She crossed the avenue, leaving the park behind her.