This is one story, which is part of a larger collection of stories.
There You Are
Kate wondered if it was considered inappropriate to let a stranger touch her, that’s what she was thinking when she got off the train.
Carter was waiting for her on the platform and when he saw her he smiled.
“Hi,” she said walking towards him.
“Hey,” he pointed down the platform. “Car’s over there.”
They walked towards it in silence. Readjusting to each other always took them a few minutes.
Once they were in the car Carter hooked his arm around her back and brought her in close to him.
“I missed you, baby,” he said and kissed her neck. She smiled.
He started the car. Kate eyed herself in the side view mirror and let a piece of hair fall loose from behind her ear.
“The house I live in this year’s giant, it’s downtown but it’s still pretty close to campus.”
“Yeah, I remember you telling me. You said it has all those trees.”
“Yeah, right, a ton, they’re nice. Big.”
He turned on the college radio station. Kate and Carter were in their junior year. Kate went to school in Boston and Carter was a student at Cornell. They both told friends they saw each other once a month but often several months would go by before either would make the trip. It was long, five hours.
“Hey,” she asked, “want to get a drink somewhere before we go back?”
“Are you sure? You don’t want to change or anything first?”
“Implying something?” Kate teased.
“Shut up, you look good, you know you do.” He put his hand on her thigh. He switched lanes after looking over his shoulder at his blind spot.
“So, where do you want to go?” he asked.
“You’re the tour guide.” She eyed herself again, putting the loose hair back in position behind her ear.
“Well, what are you in the mood for? Hey, you know there is a good place for martinis downtown. Still into those girly appletinis?”
“No!” she snapped. “As a matter of fact I’ve been drinking dirty martinis recently.” Kate put her hand on the back of his neck and then brought it down his arm.
“Very sexy,” Carter turned off the highway. “Okay, so we’ll go to Arthur’s then. It’s nice. They have leather booths and a ton of bookshelves. It’s your type of thing.”
“It’s a shame about the smoking ban,” she said.
“Baby, you don’t smoke.”
“It’s not that. I miss the atmosphere. Romance is dead without smoky bars.”
“Romance may be dead but at least the people aren’t.”
“Oh god,” she huffed, “forget all that. I’m talking about the scene, dark bars with people figuring out the world in the corners and the jazz and the smoke, you absolutely need the smoke.”
Kate had rehearsed that on the train. The bit about the romance dying with the cigarette smoke.
“Sure,” he said and quickly parallel parked the car. Kate got out and straightened her denim skirt.
“It’s down here,” he pointed, leading the way.
Carter held the door to the bar open for her and then led her to a booth in the back. It was warm. Kate pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands. The waitress came over to the table.
“Are you ready or do you need a minute?” she asked.
“She’ll have a dirty martini and I’ll have a scotch.”
The waitress nodded, nearly dropped the bowl of peanuts on the table, some nuts scattered. She skirted away.
“Scotch!” Kate gasped smiling. “I didn’t realize I was drinking with my father.”
“Whatever. It’s smooth,” Carter’s nails were bitten down so it was hard for him to pry open the peanut shells but he kept at it.
“And what if I didn’t want a dirty martini?”
“You did, you said it in the car,” he said looking at his peanut.
“I said I had been drinking them—not that I necessarily—”
“You did,” Carter said again, harder. “Don’t try to do this girl, feminist thing right now. How I ordered for you just then. I opened the door for you, too, but you didn’t seem to have a problem with that. Or that I just picked you up from the station. No problem there. I hate when girls try to make these things out of nothing.”
Kate didn’t say anything, not because she was angry or sad but because she didn’t have anything to say.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve got this bitch in my ethics class who is driving me up the wall. Picking over every little thing. I mean she holds up the whole class on these stupid details. The other day she was comparing this guy shoveling snow off her car hood, she didn’t ask him to, he just came over and started doing it and she told him, you know, that no, she could do it herself, but he did the whole job anyway. So she compared that to rape. How she said No but he did it anyway. I mean come the fuck on. You can’t even be a nice guy. It’s a lose, lose situation.”
“Nice guys always finish last,” she said as a joke.
“Exactly!” he slapped his hands on the table.
Kate went back to looking at the walls. They were lined with old bookshelves filled with leather bound novels. She saw “Tender Is the Night” and reached for it. “Have you read this?”
He laughed interrupting her. “They’re not all there.”
She pulled out the book and realized it had been sawed in half the long way.
“Why’d they do this?” she said paging through the unlatched sentences.
“I don’t know, so the books wouldn’t take up as much space I guess.”
“That’s a really tedious, stupid thing to do isn’t it? Just for some space.”
“The books,” the waitress said, coming over with the tray on one hand, “are all that way. See the shelves are only four inches deep. We needed the room,” she put down the drinks. “People pay for space, you know? Books don’t.”
Carter laughed with the waitress and the waitress walked away.
“That’s awfully stupid,” Kate said again. Carter took a sip of his scotch.
The first time Kate read “Tender is the Night” she was in Croatia. She had been traveling with Marjorie. When Kate thought about it, in that moment, it was like recalling a scene from a movie. Or slowly reeling out an exotic fish from a backyard pond. How the image of that girl in Croatia reading Tender is the Night is the same body and blood, the same person as this girl here today seems impossible to her. Reading “Tender Is the Night” in a cool, stone wine bar—an old woman in a beige blouse unassumingly sets down a blue plate of red, dry meat and a glass of cold, white wine. The woman suddenly strokes Kate’s hair once and Kate isn’t sure what to do, then the woman walks back into the kitchen through two swinging doors that continue swooshing back and forth after she’s gone. Later, Marjorie stands in the doorway of the wine bar. Her body, tall and thin, is a silhouette against the afternoon light. She is leaning in the threshold. She’s wearing silver bracelets. There you are, she says. Kate looks up from her book—
“So, how was the train?” Carter asked and then took a long sip of his scotch. Kate was still holding the half of the book. She put it back on the shelf.
“Funny, you know what, a weird thing happened actually. I forgot. I just remembered it now.”
She hadn’t forgotten.
She bent her head down and sipped from her martini glass. She was afraid to pick up the glass. It was full.
“So?” he said. She had finished her sip and she hadn’t said anything.
Kate started up, “Well, I was sitting next to this old man, he must have been like fifty or something and he was reading the Economist and I kept eyeing it because the cover story was about Guantanamo Bay and we started talking a little, it was nice,” She bent down and took another sip.
“Yeah,” he said, trying to crack another peanut.
“Well, anyway, he asked if I wanted to read it and then he told me I was lovely looking. Just like that, he said, lovely.”
“Lovely looking?” The boy laughed out loud. “Who says lovely? He was old right—how old did you say?”
“Fifty or something.”
“Creep,” he was chewing the peanut. “So, great story. That’s a good one.”
“I’m not finished. It wasn’t sleazy. He said I looked like his late wife.”
“Oh, of course, his late wife,” Carter laughed again. “No, baby, that dude doesn’t sound sleazy at all.”
“But this is the thing, he asked me if I would mind if he put his hand on my knee while he slept.”
“What!” the boy looked up from his peanut. “Are you kidding? Did you change seats?”
“No, it wasn’t like that, what you’re thinking. It was sincere.”
“Jesus Christ! I can’t believe you just buy this kind of shit. When we’re together. I mean when we’re out of school and all this long distance stuff is over you better stop doing this sort of shit. You always do stuff like this. Just buy these lines. Think things are more than just sex. God,” he laughed, cooling down, “You’re so naive. I mean with men. You have no idea,” he laughed shaking his head.
“So then you let him? You let him put his hand on your knee? Did he bring his hand up your leg? ‘Accidentally’? While he was ‘sleeping’?”
“No. It was fine. It was nothing. I think my mannerisms were just comforting to him. Why’s that a big deal? I didn’t mean for it to be a big deal. It was just a story.”
“You’re too fucking trustworthy. You can’t just let the world go around fucking you because you feel bad for it.” He finished his drink and put the glass down.
“It wasn’t like that. You’re not even seeing the point. The scene of it was just so lonely looking, like a painting, the two of us like that on a train.”
“What did you have to feel lonely about?”
“Not me, the whole thing, the moment, it was all so lonely.”
Carter huffed loudly and then waved to the waitress and she came over quickly. He looked at her and smiled.
“Hey, Molly,” he said eyeing her nametag, “so is there anything you recommend?”
“Well, I’ve always been a shot girl myself,” she said with a wink.
“Yeah?” he said grinning and raised an eyebrow. “That’s good, get me something you like.”
“Will do,” she smiled.
He looked back at Kate. “God, I can’t believe you sometimes. You’re so weird with shit like that.”
Kate brushed her finger along the book spines.
“What do you think they do with the other halves?” she asked.
“Throw them away. What else would they do with them?”
Kate thought about the man on the train. How his old hand looked against her leg. How he slept with his head facing away from her. She thought about what the other passengers might have thought when they walked by and saw his hand up there gripping her thigh. Was he her boyfriend? Her father? She thought about how she let his hand stay there, even when it did move up slowly, but not all the way. How it seemed to be the right thing to do, like letting a baby take from your breast.
After another round of drinks they went back to the car and Carter drove Kate to his big house with the trees.
In the car he put his hand on her leg but didn’t remember. Then he did and said, “Hey, so is this how the old man did it?”
She laughed and said no. She gripped his hand and pushed it under her skirt, between her legs. “Like that,” she said. He was laughing now. Grabbing at her and rubbing. Getting his hand underneath her underwear. “Like that?” Carter laughed, pushing a finger through now. Sliding his finger in and out.
“Like that?” he asked again.
“Yeah, yeah,” she was looking towards the window now, “like that.”
Kate continued to look out the window. They were driving passed vineyards in snow and the sun was low. The grape branches looked like black cracks running up the snow into the lower part of the grey sky. The land is very flat here.
For a long time now Kate has felt like she has been waking up in someone else’s life, only she isn’t sure when it started, when her life ended and the other one began.
When the train had stopped and she and the man were getting off, Kate asked, after working up some courage, “Did it help?”
He smiled slowly and carefully and said, “Unfortunately, it only reminded me that she’s dead.” Then he put on his hat. He told her she was a sweet girl and he thanked her for humoring an old man.
Kate didn’t know what to say so she didn’t say anything and then she got off the train and met Carter.
Carter brought his hand out from under her skirt and held her hand tightly. She glanced at herself in the side mirror and put the piece of hair back behind her ear. She didn’t know who she was and she didn’t know what she was doing.
In Croatia, Kate remembers Marjorie holding a handful of rocks. When Marjorie walks through the doorway she’s no longer a silhouette. She sits at the table and lets the rocks scatter. The sound echoes. She pulls her hair up in a loose bun and her bracelets clatter down her arms. “I was looking for you,” Marjorie says. Kate earmarks her book, sets it down.
“I’m glad you’re here, baby,” Carter said as they pulled into the driveway of his house.