An Accident of Beauty, 2015

by Joseph Eastburn


The last time he’d seen Abigail, she had been walking down Broadway near the Ansonia Hotel in a black leather coat drawn loosely at her waist. As her colored shirt and scarf had been open at the neck, he guessed she had walked fifteen blocks or more—just as they had together, once. There was nothing more wonderful than walking down Broadway at night with someone—hearing each other’s breath—possibly walking all the way to that forest of neon, Times Square. But on that night, Ron had headed across 73rd alone, having just come from the drama school where he was an administrative assistant from six to midnight.

They had almost run into each other.

As always, he had been struck by her beauty, standing there on the sidewalk with her cheeks glowing, her breath smoking in the chilled air as the crowds blurred around them. They had hugged with that casual New York intimacy. Abigail with long blond hair, blue eyes, lips painted red, and perfectly straight teeth smiling. She was a classic beauty—almost a cliché. How could a woman that pretty—a quintessential American glamour girl—have given him, what he thought was a look of love?

Actually, she was Canadian. But it was that look that haunted him, years later, as he got on his bike, tightened his chinstrap, and pulled on his red gloves that matched his bike and helmet. When he opened the backyard gate, memories of Abigail swarmed him. Even the California sunshine couldn’t quash his melancholy. She was back there, in the frigid East Coast weather, and she had wanted him.

Why had he married Jan? Yes, she was his closest friend and the one who had supported him in every way and encouraged his broken dream of becoming an actor in Los Angeles. But all he could think about as he zipped up his red Pearl Izumi jacket (a splurge last Christmas), was the way Abigail’s eyes had softened as she blinked back the cold New York air when he told her that he was moving out West. Her pretty-as-a-picture face seemed full of loss. Was it regret in her look? And why was he, twenty-two years later, still thinking of it as a sign of love?

***

They had met at a restaurant. Abigail had been the hostess at Teachers, the it Upper West Side watering hole at the time. A place which had long ago closed and then been renamed. Ron had been a waiter at a dimly lit Upper East Side restaurant on First Avenue. It was a white tablecloth place. He had to board three subway trains to get to it wearing a bow tie and red dinner jacket

One night, coming home, he had gotten off the train early. Usually, he took the back exit at 93rd Street and walked past West End Avenue to his studio apartment. But that night, he had decided to check out the bars on Broadway. He was single and it was the 80’s: the decade of decadence.

When he had walked into Teachers, Abigail had smiled at him when he sat at the bar near the host stand. When he came back a second night, she gave him a knowing laugh, periodically sitting near him at the bar. She had to get up to seat people but she had always returned to the barstool next to him and thrown wry comments in his direction.

Back then, Ron didn’t understand social cues very well. What with the too loud music, the racket of glassware and the clouds of smoke, he had stopped going to Teachers. It wasn’t until he ran into her at an audition, that he had taken a chance and asked her to meet him at a coffee shop in the West 70’s. In a booth, under unforgiving fluorescent lights, he finally realized how stunning she was, beauty mark and all. When she had slipped out of the booth to use the ladies’ room, he had studied her ass the way a Sumerian scholar might read cuneiform. A glaring waiter had forced him to return his eyes to the cup in front of him. That night, Abigail told Ron she had been recently divorced and didn’t want anything to do with men, just then. When they waved good-bye on the sidewalk, he wondered how anyone could relax around a woman who looked like that. What would you say? How could you keep her entertained? He assured himself he was doing the right thing as he walked away, brooding.

A few years later, after he moved to the West Village, Abigail left a message on his answering machine about a Christmas party, inviting him to come armed with a festive bauble to hang on her tree. He listened to the message, over and over, parsing the inflections in her syllables and intonations. He decided not to go.

Then they were cast in an original musical at St. Clement’s, the big Church on Restaurant Row, for a three-week run. At a read-through at her apartment, the show’s obnoxious leading man had very publicly placed his hand on Abigail’s beautiful stomach, ostensibly to demonstrate a breathing technique though it was clear to Ron that he just wanted to touch her. Ron had steamed with jealousy. To him, Abigail was a perfect specimen of womanhood—one step up from Goddess. He had almost worked up the courage to ask her out when Abigail introduced him to her boyfriend. David was a director type, with shoulder-length hair. He and Abigail wore matching craft moccasins. Ron had muttered “Cute,” somewhat derisively and hid the fact that he longed to be in the guy’s shoes, whatever shoes they were.

A month after the production ended, Abigail asked Ron over to her apartment. On the subway there, his mind operated on two tracks. A socially appropriate track: one where they politely drank tea in her living room and caught up on actor stuff; and another track where he imagined them naked, sweating on the hard wood or against the piano, shrieking with passion that the neighbors would mistake for music of the spheres.

When he got to her building at the end of 72nd Street near the Hudson River, he went to the back elevator as instructed. There, a hefty, unshaven man stared at him with contempt and said Abigail was not in. The next day, Abigail called to apologize. She had been at home. The strange man in the lobby was employed by the building and seemed to be fixated on her. He constantly turned her male friends away. She lamented that he made her life miserable. Ron wanted to come to her rescue and move in, so he could never be turned away again. They tried to reschedule, but weeks went by and it just never happened.

***

Ron rode the Ballona Creek bike path, red bicycle and matching helmet hard to miss, front and rear pulsing lights as a safety feature, even in the day light. He was pumping out from under the Inglewood Bridge with the Centinela coming up, feeling good. He might ride all the way to Playa del Rey and then to the ocean.

This made him think of how 72nd Street, her street, sloped down toward the Hudson River. He’d often pass Abigail’s building as he veered onto the northbound lane of the West Side Highway. In New York time, this had been two apartments after he had last seen her. After he had gotten evicted from his illegal sublet in the West Village, he moved to a neighborhood north of Fort Tryon Park, 203rd near Dyckman Street, to a one-bedroom apartment which he had paid five hundred a month for—unheard of in New York, even in 1988.

He was dating Jan at this point. The problem with the apartment was the commute. Because they were replacing track on the A train at night, it took him hours to get home. Even on the #1 train, which also ran uptown, the subway Gods often dumped him out at 137th. Sometimes, he’d have to wait an hour for another train. There was not enough air on the platform those nights. He thought too much about the lack of direction in his life, and felt more confused than usual.

So he had bought a cheap Chrysler K-car, out on Long Island, and drove it downtown instead of taking the train. The car was blue, rectangular, and looked like a federal agent’s car. He usually parked it on Dyckman Street, near the river. One Thursday night, when he stepped out to move his car to the other side of the street, he found someone had broken a window and stolen his car radio. He was angry, but soon shrugged it off. The radio had been cheap too. He decided to wait until the weekend to deal with it and moved the car to the other side of the street, broken window and all.

On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast with Jan, they walked down Dyckman and discovered his car had been ransacked. All the tires were slashed and all the windows were now broken. The hood was open, with a sheath of wires carelessly draped over the grill. Someone had ripped out whatever parts they could: distributor, alternator and the battery. Even the headlights and part of the front grill had been yanked off. Inside, the dome light was missing, next to a spray of red graffiti.

In a trance, Ron and Jan found their way to a service station, where they met Pablo, a short Dominican man. He hoisted up the K-car, hauled it up the street with his wrecker, and then dropped what was left of it into one of his garage bays. With clipboard in hand, Pablo explained that across the 207th Street Bridge, down along the Harlem River, there was a junkyard that might have the parts they needed. He thought he’d seen a K-car there. Ron and Jan both trudged to the cash machine.

They drove to the Bronx in Pablo’s wrecker, with Jan sitting between them on the bench seat. Dominican music was everywhere—in the cab, wafting from passing cars—in the air itself. Pablo talked of moving back to his country. At the junkyard, he unbolted parts from similar Chryslers, stacking them neatly in the back of the wrecker: four tires, engine parts and a grill—everything except the glass. Pablo stared at Ron, looking puzzled as he worked his ratchet up and down. Jan walked through the soft tall grass. In the sun, she looked pretty with her hair short, dressed in blue jeans a white T-shirt, and a vest drawn tight at her waist. She had a bemused expression as she gazed at the piles of wreckage on the riverbank. Deep in his doldrums of New York car hell, even in the middle of one of his nightmares Ron couldn’t help but notice how happy Jan appeared to be, just to simply be with him.

In the wrecker, after Jan had gone home, Pablo said accusingly, “She loves you.” He said this with a certainty that Latino men had, as if by virtue of their culture they could see into a woman’s heart and know the mystery of what went on there. It cemented what Ron hadn’t wanted to admit: that they would marry. Up to that point, Ron had thought marriage was to be avoided at all costs. His ambition had always been to pursue hot, blonde women with beauty marks. But he had to admit he’d gotten nowhere and realized he didn’t want to hit fifty and find himself alone, wearing a toupee at a Midwestern dinner theater.

He and Jan fit together. He had gotten along with Jan’s friends who joked about requiring a passport to make the journey to his apartment. And they had their own jokes. When Ron hired a Swedish man to refinish the floors of his apartment on 203rd, the man promised to treat the floors with three coats of polyurethane, and had left him an invoice for three cots pally. It had become a phrase that he and Jan used to describe a meal in a restaurant, or a theater piece, even a building’s architectural design. They would say, “Yes, but it would be so much better with three cots pally.”

Still, there was Abigail. He called her one night just to hear her voice. She giggled when he had made a joke about Nefertiti, pronouncing it “titty.” She was on the rebound after David had had an affair with a younger woman. Ron wondered if David had left his pair of craft moccasins behind. He made another joke about the queen of Egypt, and Abigail laughed out loud, this time raucously. Then she asked if Ron was seeing anyone. Ron said he was, but regretted it immediately. He asked Abigail to meet him for dinner.

They chose Teachers, where they had met years earlier. During dinner, Ron marveled at her beauty and fantasized about dating Abigail instead of Jan. But he was put off when Abigail started telling him about her harsh, Calvinist upbringing, interspersed with anecdotes of how many men she had ridiculed, like so many notches on her inner thigh. She was loud, caustic, and had laughed over Ron whenever he tried to talk. Even his Nefertiti jokes had fallen flat. As they walked down Broadway together, Ron knew that breaking up with Jan, even for this raving beauty, would be a huge mistake.

***

But twenty-two years later, he was rethinking this. As he got off the bike path at McConnell and rode over to a health-food store on Washington Boulevard, he relived that night. If he had told Abigail that he wanted to see her more beforehand, he wondered if she would have been so off-putting. When he positioned the what if’s next to the look of love he thought he’d seen in Abigail’s face the last time he saw her, he reasoned they might have become a couple. Fortune had brought them back together so many times, hadn’t it? It began to possess Ron that he had made a colossal mistake by not attempting to woo Abigail. He imagined them living together at the end of 72nd Street, wearing matching moccasins—if they wore clothes at all. He conjured up their lovemaking in magical proportions, which produced beautiful, blonde children. He painted such a picture of residential bliss that it made his brain seethe.

Perhaps that was why Ron didn’t see the car door fly open in front of him as he cycled along Washington Boulevard. He crashed into it and was thrown over the door. He landed on his right shoulder and broke his collarbone in several places. Lying bewildered on the pavement, he later recalled the woman responsible asking a policeman if she could leave. He remembered the wheels of his stretcher retracting, the ride in the ambulance, and the ER. In surgery, a week later, Ron was given a general anesthetic to have a metal plate wedged into his shoulder.

Afterward, floating on Percocet, he plummeted down a distracted shaft of dreams. He saw himself in Abigail’s 72nd Street apartment, wearing craft moccasins and touching her beautiful stomach. But when they made love, Abigail was distant and seemed anxious to finish. She said, “If I don’t get on the A-train now, it will take me all night to get home.” He didn’t understand. Where was the magical lovemaking? Where was the bliss? Her blue eyes grew large as she vehemently demanded that he get off her. She walked over and sat at her vanity table the same way she had on the barstool at Teachers. Small light bulbs blinked on around the mirror. He sat up, placed his feet in craft moccasins and approached her naked back, elongated in the vanity mirror. But it was not himself he saw in the mirror, but the hefty, unshaven man who had barred his admittance at the back elevator all those years ago. The man said, “Abigail is not here.” He looked down at Abigail, who was so absorbed with penciling an eyebrow that she didn’t look up.

***

When Ron woke up from his surgery, Jan was there, sitting beside his bed and holding his hand. She smoothed his hair and asked how he was feeling. Her smile was tender. It reminded him of when Jan was going to move to Boston for grad school. She had smiled like that just before boarding a train, which had stalled in New Haven. She had written Ron a heart-felt letter on that train and ended it with the words; I can’t get you out of my mind. Ron had read the letter in the kitchen of his illegal sublet and burst into tears. Why he had cried? Was it because Jan loved him more than he was capable of loving anyone? He lay in the hospital bed studying this woman who was without beauty marks and finally realized that the beauty inside her made her more beautiful than Abigail could ever hope to be.

 


Joseph Eastburn

I graduated from the Metropolitan Campus of SUNY at Empire State College and earned a master’s degree in professional writing from USC, where I taught for ten years. My writing has appeared in American Theatre, Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, The Sun Magazine, The Sand Hill Review and Tower Journal. My first novel, Kiss Them Good-Bye was published by Morrow in 1993. I’m writing a full-length novel on Twitter, The Summer Of Love And Death (twitter/darknovel)

 


What's your take on this?