|Short Fiction | About the Author | Spanish Translation ||
drawing by Rory, Age 5.
|Finding a taxi during the evening rush hour in midtown
can be hell, but it was especially aggravating on that night. Knee deep in slush, with ice
pelting against my face, I waved at every cab that passed by, hoping that by some miracle
one of them would stop. But every cab zipped past, adding to the insult by showering me
with a coating of brown muck. I was ready to give up and walk the five blocks to the
subway when, like a God-send, I saw an empty cab waiting to turn on to Broadway.
There was only one obstacle between myself and cab heaven--a woman in the middle of block, closer to the corner than I was, who was also knee deep in slush. On any normal, less-hellish rush hour, I may have let the woman have the cab, but on this night, I decided that the normal rules of cab-etiquette didn't apply. Tonight, it was every man and woman for themselves.
Making sure she didn't notice me, I walked behind her on the sidewalk, almost slipping a few times on the ice, and then I stepped onto the gutter near the corner, intercepting the cab as it started to turn. After I told the cab driver where I wanted to go--Sixty-Eighth and Columbus--I looked outside at the freezing, angry woman, without remorse. After all, how did I know that she hadn't cut someone off to get her position on the street? And even if she hadn't done it tonight, she had probably done it at some other point in her life.
As the cab splashed and skidded uptown, I realized how lucky I was to be someplace warm. Even the chicken-wing odor and the loud salsa music that the cabby was playing didn't annoy me. I took off my gloves and rubbed my hands together, trying to regain some feeling. I tried to wiggle my toes, but they were still frozen and tingling. I thought about a case I was working on--a guy suing the city because he'd been injured in a bus accident. Of course the guy hadn't really been injured in the accident--he hadn't even been riding on the bus at the time--but he had solid witnesses who were willing to vouch for his story and I thought I had an excellent chance of winning the case.
It was then that I became aware of an object under my shoe. At first I thought it was a piece of garbage, maybe a soda can, but then I realized it was much flatter than a soda can and I thought that perhaps I had dropped one of my gloves. I reached down onto the dark, wet floor and picked up a brown leather wallet. It was obviously a woman's wallet and, judging by its considerable weight, it seemed to be filled.
Without hesitating, I did what any normal, sensible New Yorker would do--I opened the wallet to see how much money was inside. The hundreds caught my eye first--there were three of them--then I counted two fifties, four twenties, and a bunch of singles. I felt the same buzz up my spinal cord I'd felt the time I won a hundred dollars on a scratch-off lottery ticket. I searched through the compartments in the wallet, but I couldn't find any more money except for a few American and foreign coins. I counted the money again and got a total--four hundred dollars and sixteen cents.
I resisted my intention to yell "Baby!" fearing that the cab driver would see the wallet and claim it as his property.
I already had my strategy planned out. I would keep the money and leave the wallet on the floor of the cab where I'd found it. Another passenger would find it and turn it into the driver so the woman who owned it could go to the taxi lost-and-found, or whatever it was called, and claim it. Of course the money wouldn't be there, but the woman would be so glad to have the rest of her things that she wouldn't even care about the money. I knew that if I lost my wallet, the last thing I'd be concerned about was being out a few hundred bucks.
Out of curiosity, before I put the wallet back on the floor, I opened it again, to see if there was any identification of its owner. There was no driver's license or credit cards which made me feel a little better because I realized that even if I wanted to return the money, I couldn't. Then, in one of the compartments, I found a stack of old concert tickets--Madonna, Bon Jovi, Sting and some other, probably newer bands I didn't recognize. The writing on them was in Spanish and on one of the tickets I saw the words, "Buenos Aires." The wallet obviously belonged to some Argentinean teenager. I searched the other compartments but found no clues as to her address or phone number or where she might be staying in New York. There were a few business cards of hair salons in Buenos Aires and then I found what looked like a library card, issued to "Bianca DeTorres." In another compartment, I found a couple of other pieces of I.D., issued to the same person. Then, finally, I found a small snap shot of a teenage girl. She had long brown hair and a pretty, innocent face. She was wearing bright red lipstick and mascara, as if trying to look older.
It was then that I began to feel the first twinges of guilt.
Before I'd searched through the wallet and found that picture, I imagined the owner to be some hardened New York woman, the type who wouldn't hesitate to steal a cab from under somebody's nose during the height of a winter storm. But Bianca DeTorres--if indeed that was the girl's name--was probably alone in the city, perhaps visiting relatives, and she was probably crying hysterically at this very moment. The money may have been all the money she had for the entire trip, and now she would have to cut her vacation short, if she could afford to get back at all.
As the cab turned on to my block, I decided that I couldn't leave the wallet in the cab as I'd planned. I had to figure out some way to return the money and the wallet to its owner.
Mona was in another one of her moods. During my story about finding the wallet, she interrupted several times, either to guess what I was going to say next or to branch-off into some other story about herself. When I got to the part where I was in the cab, thinking about keeping the money, she interrupted, "How could you keep the money?" and I said, "I'm not keeping the money. I said I was thinking about keeping it," and then I said, "Look, maybe we should just forget about this, okay?" and she said, "No, come on, I want you to tell me." But--the annoyed husband proving a point to his wife--I refused to speak for several minutes. When I felt I had accomplished my goal, I finished my story.
"So what are you going to do?" she said.
"What can I do? I'd like to get the money back to her, but it's not exactly like there's an address and phone number in the wallet."
"I guess if worse comes to worse you'll just have to take it to the Argentinean Embassy."
"Why? So they could pocket the money as soon as I walk out the door?"
"Well, you have to get the money back to her somehow."
"For Christ's sake, haven't you been listening to me for the past fifteen minutes? I want to give the money back to her, that is my sole intent, but if I can't give it back to her I don't see the point in just dropping it off for a bunch of strangers to have."
"You know her name, right? So why not try to figure out her address in Buenos Aires and send it to her there?"
"Do you know what the mail is like in South America? People won't even send packages there. Can you imagine how long a wallet with money in it would last? I'd be better off flushing it down the toilet."
"I just don't know what you're getting so angry at me for. I'm just trying to help."
"Then help me. Don't just sit there making ridiculous suggestions."
I walked away into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, took out the orange juice, and drank from the carton. I was angry--at Mona, at the weather, and at just about everything else.
"So what are you going to do?"
She was behind me now, her hands on her hips. The fluorescent light brought out the lines under her eyes.
"I guess there's nothing I can do."
"You mean you're thinking about keeping the money?"
"Unless you can come up with a better idea."
"That's terrible, Richard. Don't you have one decent bone in your body? I mean it was probably all the money that poor girl had."
"First of all, we have no way of knowing that for sure. This didn't occur to me until now, but if she had enough money to come to New York, odds are her family's pretty well off. You know how it is in those countries, there's no middle class. Either people are rich or they're poor and if they're poor they sure as hell don't go travelling in the United States."
"This was what you were hoping for all along, wasn't it?" she said. "That way you wouldn't be able to figure out any way to get the money back to her so you'd have to just keep it."
"We're talking about a few hundred bucks," I said. "It's not like I need the money."
"All the more reason why you should mail it back to her."
"Look, I think we should just end this discussion now."
"How dare you talk to me that way when I'm trying to help you! I think from now on I'll decide when we start and end our discussions, thank you very much."
She stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her. I didn't care. Arguing with Mona had been a habit for a long time. I knew that she'd be angry at me for the rest of the night, maybe not talk to me, but tomorrow everything would go back to normal.
I watched a little of the Ranger game on TV and then went into my study and did some preparation for the bus accident case. At about eleven-thirty I went into the bedroom. Mona was sitting up in bed, mascara smeared on her cheeks as if she'd been crying. I was about to say something, but she turned away from me angrily. I went into the bathroom and washed up. When I came out, Mona said, "So did you decide what you're going to do about the wallet yet?"
"I didn't think you were talking to me."
I was thinking what my life would have been like if I never married Mona--if after our first date I never called her again. It was time to talk seriously about getting divorced. We'd talked about it once, a few months ago, after a fight on the night of our seventh anniversary. I'd taken her out to Windows On The World and we just sat there with nothing to talk about. I said to her, "Look at us--it's like we don't know each other anymore." She agreed, but the next day both of us pretended as if the conversation had never happened. We were probably both hoping the problem would just go away.
"Look, I don't think it's a good idea to discuss this anymore."
"I asked you a question, Richard."
"All right. I think I'm going to keep the money."
"Is that your final decision?"
"Jesus Christ, why won't you just let this rest?"
"I asked you a question."
"Yes. Okay? It's my final decision."
"Fine. That's all I needed to know."
Mona got out of bed and took a suitcase out of the closet. She started packing her dresses, one by one.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"I can't take this anymore. If this is the way you're going to be, I'm leaving."
"Can you stop being ridiculous?"
"And I'd appreciate it if you didn't constantly tell me what I am and am not being. I'm an adult and I'm fully capable of being however I want to be."
After the first suitcase was filled, she closed it and started filling another one with the contents of her dresser.
"So what are you going to do," I said, "check into a hotel?"
"No, I'll probably move in with Renee for a while. When you were in the kitchen I called her and she said I could stay with her as long as I want to."
Renee was Mona's cousin who lived on the East Side. They were very close--talking on the phone practically every night. Renee never liked me. Before we were married, Mona told me that Renee thought I was selfish and arrogant. I wondered what she'd said about me lately.
"All right, you made your point," I said. "Can you just put those suitcases away now?"
"No, I can't," she said. "You said your decision was final, well so is mine."
"So let me get this straight. You're going to leave me because I'm going to keep some money from a wallet?"
"It has nothing to do with the money. All I know is I just can't stand the way you've been treating me lately. You're so selfish and arrogant, it makes me sick. I just can't take this--this bullshit anymore. I just can't."
She dropped a handful of things into the suitcase and then pulled a blanket out of the closet.
"What's the matter?" I said, "Renee doesn't have blankets at her apartment?"
"I'll give you one last chance to talk about what I've said," she said, "or tomorrow I'm leaving."
After she slammed the door, I laughed to myself, thinking about how comical a situation this really was. I knew that Mona wasn't serious about leaving me--she didn't have the guts. She'd probably just had another argument with her boss. She worked as an executive assistant for the CEO of a small pharmaceutical company. It was a dead-end job that she'd only been planning to keep for a year or two, until we had children. Then we found out that I had a low sperm count and was probably infertile. We talked about adoption, but lately, with all our fighting, neither of us wanted to bring this subject up either. In one of our fights, I'd told her that she complained about her boss so much because her boss was a metaphor for me, that I was the one she was really angry at. She blew up at me, telling me that I was "just trying to change the subject," but she never denied it was true.
In the morning, when I came out of the shower, Mona was standing outside the bathroom with the same serious expression.
"Well? Have you thought about the things I said?"
"Again with this shit?"
"Are you or are you not going to return the wallet?"
"What difference does it make?"
"It makes a difference to me."
I was late for work and I didn't feel like getting into another pointless argument.
"Fine," I said. "I'll have a messenger drop it off at the embassy today. Now can we just drop this discussion?"
Arctic air had turned the city into a giant ice skating rink. I made it through the single-digit cold into my office by eight o'clock, a half hour later than I usually arrived. I had meetings all morning, preparing for the bus accident case, then, before lunch, I remembered about my promise to return the wallet. I thought about just keeping the money and throwing the wallet away, telling Mona that I'd dropped it off. But then I remembered how serious she'd been this morning and how it wouldn't surprise me if she called the embassy later to see if the wallet was there. It wasn't worth the aggravation.
I had my secretary arrange for a messenger to pick up the wallet, then I took one last browse through it. When I came to picture of the girl whom I assumed was Bianca, I paused, starting to feel guilty again. She was so innocent, so young, it didn't seem as if she had ever been angry at anyone her entire life. I remembered what Mona had said, about how I didn't have a decent bone in my body, then I thought about the bus accident case, and all the other scummy cases I'd been handling lately. I knew she'd just been saying this to make me feel bad, but one thing about Mona, her words always managed to cut right through me.
I searched the wallet for any clues of Bianca's New York address that I might have missed. At first it seemed hopeless, but then I found something that I thought might be helpful. It was a business card from a hair salon in Queens. The corners of the card seemed sharp, indicating that she had probably gotten it within the past couple of days.
Sure enough, when I called the place, the woman who answered said that Bianca DeTorres had been in her salon a few days ago, but that she didn't know Bianca personally. Bianca had been with a friend, Edilla Gutierrez, and the woman gave me Edilla's phone number.
I complimented myself for my great detective work, but I had a minor let down when Edilla wasn't home. Fortunately, someone in the house who spoke very little English gave me Edilla's work number in Manhattan. Edilla answered on the first ring. She was thrilled to hear that I had found Bianca's wallet--she said that Bianca had been extremely upset. The only problem was that Bianca was supposed to check out of the Milford Plaza Hotel in midtown this afternoon, if she hadn't already.
I told my secretary to reschedule my afternoon appointments. I dashed down to the street to hail a cab, my trench coat opened, barely aware of the stinging cold. The midday traffic was so terrible that I got out of the cab and sprinted the final four blocks to the hotel.
Out of breath, I asked the man at the desk if Bianca DeTorres had checked out yet and he pointed to a woman sitting on a couch with two bags of luggage. My first thought was that there must be some kind of mistake. This woman looked nothing like the girl in the picture. She was about twenty-one years old and with her long black hair and smooth tan face she looked as beautiful as a fashion model. But as I got closer I realized that she was indeed the same woman I had seen in the photograph, except that she was about five or six years older.
"I think I have some good news for you," I said.
When she saw that I was holding her wallet, she suddenly smiled widely. I noticed how white and perfect her teeth were, how I had probably never seen a more perfect woman in my life. I realized I was staring at her and looked away.
"I don't believe it," she said, "and all the money is here too. My friend, she told me, in New York, you can forget the money. The wallet someone might return, but never the money."
She wanted to give me a reward, fifty dollars, but I insisted that it wasn't necessary.
"At least, can I buy you a coffee? My plane won't leave until tonight."
I agreed and we went into the coffee shop. She continued to thank me for returning the wallet and I continued to act as if it were something I hadn't thought twice about doing. She explained how the wallet had a great sentimental value to her too, since she'd had it since she was a teenager.
Then we started talking about other things. She asked me what I did for a living. When I told her she seemed very impressed, probably assuming I worked on murder cases.
"You must live a very exciting life," she said.
She said that she was an actress, or hoped to be one, and that she wanted to move to New York some day. During a pause in conversation, her gaze settled on mine for a few seconds. During those few seconds I was a different person. I was no longer thirty-eight years old, trapped in a stale marriage. Instead, I was twenty-one, just out of college, and I had just met Bianca at a nightclub. We were two kids who didn't know what it meant to be unhappy, who didn't have any futures or pasts. Then the few seconds ended and I was me again. But even as me I couldn't stop staring at Bianca, imaging what things could be like. She had the most beautiful brown eyes, the fullest pink lips, the shiniest black hair...
"Has anyone ever told you that you're very attractive?"
She had said this, not me. I thought I must have imagined it, that it must have been left over from those few moments. But then I realized it was real. Suddenly, I was nervous. I felt wetness building on my back.
"You should be the one to talk," I said.
I don't remember what we spoke about after that. I was too nervous to concentrate. During the conversation, I lowered my hand below the table and slid off my wedding ring. As soon as the ring dropped into my pants pocket I felt like I was an adulterer. I never imagined that nine years of marriage could slip off of my finger so easily.
We had finished our coffees and we were doing more staring than talking. I wanted her, more than I had wanted Mona in years. Maybe more than I had ever wanted Mona.
"I still have a few hours before I have to go to the airport," she said. "Would you like to go to a museum with me?"
It seemed innocent enough. After all, what could happen at a museum?
We took a cab uptown. The traffic no longer bothered me. In fact, I was so absorbed with Bianca that I was hardly aware of being inside the cab. At one point, I felt so confident that I decided to hold her hand. Surprisingly, she didn't move hers away. Instead, she put her other gloved hand over mine.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Museum of Natural History, but we could have been under water or in the middle of a battlefield and I would have only seen Bianca. She told me how she had been raised in a small town outside of Buenos Aires. I told her about my childhood in Piscataway, New Jersey. We could have been talking about any subject and nothing would have changed.
Looking at dinosaur bones and meteors and dioramas of Africa, there was only Bianca. Bianca was the ecosystems, the global warming, the evolution of man. We held hands again, but now her hands were bare. I was surprised, remembering how warm and smooth a woman's hand feels. I had held Mona's hand so many times that they had stopped feeling like a woman's hands. They were Mona's hands, as familiar as if they were extensions of my own body.
I tried to remember the things I loved about Mona, but my mind was blank. The things I loved about her had disappeared a long time ago. We hardly ever talked to each other anymore--except when we were arguing--and I couldn't remember the last time we'd laughed.
It was five o'clock. Bianca said that she had to leave for the airport to catch her flight. She told me that she'd had a great time and I didn't need words to answer her. Standing underneath the bones of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, I kissed her uncontrollably, like I had never kissed Mona. I had already worked out the next steps in my mind. I would get her address and phone number in Buenos Aires and arrange to meet her somewhere. I'd tell Mona that I was going on a business trip or to a convention. Or I could arrange for Bianca to come back to New York. I could put her up at a hotel or even rent an apartment for her to move into--make her into "a kept woman." Isn't that how men had affairs?
The wind had died down, but the cold was still numbing. It was almost dark. I walked Bianca to the curb and kissed her again. Then we pulled away and stared each other for what seemed like a long time. We didn't need words to tell each other that these were going to be our last moments together. Later, I would wonder if she was married too, or engaged, or living with someone. There could have been a wedding ring in her pocket that she would slip back onto her finger as soon as she was alone. Finally, we let go of each other and I realized how cold my hands were. My last words to her were, "Take good care of that wallet now."
When I got home, Mona wasn't back from work yet so I got out of my clothes and watched the end of the six o'clock news. A few minutes had passed when I realized that something seemed different about the apartment. It was emptier and bigger than before. Then I realized that things were missing--from the bookshelves and the mantlepiece. I went into the bedroom and saw that Mona's suitcase was gone. Other things were missing too--her jewelry, the things from her night table, more clothes from her closet. She had even taken her cosmetics from the medicine chest.
When I went back into the living room I noticed a piece of paper stuck to the kitchen door. I only had to read one line, somewhere in the middle of the note.
....You knew we had to face our problems sooner or later, so this shouldn't come as a surprise to you...
I ordered some Chinese food and went into my office to prepare for work tomorrow. The bus accident case was going to trial and I had to be downtown early. The Knicks were playing and I watched the end of the fourth quarter, then I did a little more work. The noise of a plane outside started me thinking about Bianca. I wondered if it could be the very plane that she was taking back to Argentina. I could see the smoothness of her face, the wave in her hair. I could feel her hands and see her eyes when she looked at me for the last time.
That night, I couldn't sleep. The window was open, letting through a chilly draft, and I didn't bother to shut it.
|© 1997 Jason Starr|
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