The first time he saw her she was standing across Lexington Avenue next to a soot-streaked snowbank. She was wearing purple mittens and a purple hat and a thigh-length camel’s hair coat and she looked tired, she looked cold, she looked like she was ready to pack it all up and head back to Kansas, or Iowa, or Nebraska, wherever. She looked up, met his gaze, looked over her shoulder, looked down; then she pulled part of a white-bread sandwich out of her coat pocket, wrinkled her nose at it, and took a huge bite. Something clicked in his brain, neurons firing in recognition, and he thought coat pocket sandwich half, I know this girl, though he’d bet money he’d never seen her before in his life. He started to roll down the cab window to call out to her, but the light changed and they were off down the street before he could decide what to say.
The next time he saw her was at Jerome and Jenny’s reception, four months later, with the city’s Bartlett pears in bloom up and down the avenues and a slender crescent moon overhead. They were on the hotel terrace and he asked if he could get her another glass of champagne, and when she said yes, he asked how she knew the bride. “I know the groom,” she said, frowning, but didn’t say how. She was wearing a low-cut sleeveless dress, black silk, he thought, with a slit up one side, and she was cold; he loaned her his tux jacket. “There’s dancing inside,” he said, but she said she didn’t want to go back in there. “I think I’ve seen you before,” he said, “back in January, standing on the street in a camel’s hair coat eating a sandwich,” and she said she did indeed have such a coat but never ate sandwiches, he probably had her mixed up with someone else, she got that a lot, she was a type. “No, it was you, I’m sure of it,” he said, “even though I only saw you for a few seconds.” They talked about how hard it was to live in the city, roommate troubles, astrology. Eventually without any warning she put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled his face down and kissed him.
The first time she stayed at his place she asked him to loan her a pair of boxer shorts and to read her a bedtime story. She said he had a nice voice but immediately he realized that wasn’t it. Night frightened her. She didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want him to fall asleep first. She was trying to keep him awake. So he looked around for something to read to her, there in his dim bedroom. Books and magazines were piled up by the bed, stacks of novels and histories and a couple of biographies, and he grabbed something at random. Salinger. “Oh, I love this one story in there,” she told him; “what is it called?” It turned out to be “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” one of his favorites too. He began reading it, with her head heavy on his shoulder. She breathed slowly, calmly. Halfway through he could feel her falling asleep, but he kept going, not wanting to break the spell. Before he turned the final page, he began to feel something bubbling up to the surface—what was it, what was it? Then in the last paragraph he read this: “Between Third and Lexington, she reached into her coat pocket for her purse and found the sandwich half.”
His mouth fell open. He stopped reading. He blinked at the page to make sure. Before he could say anything else she murmured for him to keep going, don’t stop. In her small drowsy voice she said, “Don’t stop, Jerome.”
Luke Whisnant is the author of the novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese (made into an independent film in 2011), the story collection Down in the Flood, and two poetry chapbooks. He teaches creative writing and literature at East Carolina University, where he also edits the journal Tar River Poetry. His website is lukewhisnant.com.