“Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The hawk was most definitely out tonight as I stood at the bow of the Staten Island ferry, coat collar popped and gloved hands thrust into pockets. This particular hawk bore a vicious set of teeth and wasn’t afraid to bite, which was fine by me. The colder weather combined with the icy wind that whipped off the bay afforded me some much-appreciated elbowroom, a concept that was foreign to most New Yorkers.
Being all alone out here wasn’t a problem. I had been alone most of my adult life. Alone in a crowded room. Alone in committed relationships. The people closest to me, those tenacious few who loved a challenge, were kept at an equidistant arm’s length.
Alone was my appetite.
Alone was my mantra.
Alone was my destiny.
“Not too cold out tonight, is it?” The voice almost sent me out of my skin. There, suddenly beside me, was a woman bundled against the chill air, lips curled slightly in sarcasm. Right next to me. Within the boundaries of my personal space.
“Not as cold as it could be,” I replied more out of reflex than want. What I wanted was a little privacy, to tend to my own affairs as other people on the ferry tended to theirs. It was part of the unspoken rule when you agreed to live in this city. You avoided eye contact and kept yourself to yourself.
I looked at her, this stealthy woman that took me totally unawares. A full foot shorter than me, pretty, petite, and what was the politically correct term for it? Middle Asian? I wasn’t too sure and felt naked without my local PC handbook to check for accuracy.
The immediate thing that came to mind wasn’t how stunningly attractive this woman was. My first thought was actually, Why are you talking to me? As a point of clarification, that was one of the things I admired about myself, whether it was my face or the vibe I gave off, people generally never felt the need to walk up and talk to me. Unless of course they were mentally challenged or capable—again I needed to consult the handbook—or nuts or out to start a fight with a stranger they mistakenly assumed was harmless. She was clearly none of those.
But the thought evaporated as suddenly as it appeared. She blurted out a simple statement of fact and I happened to be within earshot. Conversation over. Turn the page. But it wasn’t over. “Do you know who you are?” she asked without a discernible trace of an accent.
“Pardon?” I was taken aback by the suddenness of the question. “What, like my name?”
“No, that is what you are called. I want to know if you had to describe yourself to an absolute stranger, what would you say?”
“Most likely? Nothing.” I admitted. “I’m not too fond of the question.”
“Really? What if Nazis held guns to your parents’ heads? What would you tell me then?” she smiled politely, waiting.
Damn. The Nazi ploy.
As much as I hated being manipulated in this fashion, I couldn’t allow anyone, not even this woman, the most un-New Yorkian person I had ever encountered, to think I was some heartless brute that would have allowed Nazis to murder my parents in an effort to avoid providing a self-summary.
“And just so you know, we, the Nazis and I, aren’t accepting work in progress as a suitable answer, since we’re all works in progress until the moment we give up living.”
“Fair enough.” I nodded. It was one of those overused expressions that I couldn’t stand, just like thinking outside the box. I watched her with obvious suspicion and had half a mind not to answer, half a mind to walk away. Neither of those halves proved to be victorious.
I hadn’t the foggiest notion what came over me but words started spilling out of my mouth before I even realized I was speaking. “What I am is a pessimistic optimist, who believes love shouldn’t be denied to anyone, even to those born with icy hearts. What I know is that I’m wise enough accept love as it finds me and not reject it because it doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty package. What I hope is that someday every lonely person will reach out to another lonely person and befriend them so that the word lonely fades from our lexicon.”
“You must be a writer because that was corny and clumsily poetic,” she eyed me for a long moment. “But an artful dodge, so I’ll let you get away with it. This time.”
This time? Just who did this woman think she was?
“Now it’s your turn,” I said. “Tell me something about yourself first. Anything. Start with where you’re from.”
For the briefest instant, her expression took on a sadness that could only have belonged to reminiscence. “I was born and raised in India, longer ago than you would believe, but I have traveled all over, to places you probably do not even realize exist.”
“You’re probably right about that. Geography really isn’t my strong suit and I haven’t really traveled outside of the five boroughs.” I said, instantly embarrassed by my lack of worldliness. “So, what brings you to New York?”
She remained quiet for a moment before answering. “I work for an organization, currently in a state of transition. Suffered drastic downsizing due to image problems and public opinion. My employer is in the midst of rebranding and taking on a new staff to suit the company’s new direction. You can say that I am one of many headhunters.”
“Talk about your artful dodge. You said a mouthful just now and told me absolutely nothing about what your organization does to make a profit.”
“I can tell you, but only if you really want to know because that information comes at a price.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Your undying loyalty.”
I chuckled. “Of course.”
“Of course, you agree to my terms, or of course, as in a mockery?” she cocked an eyebrow my way. “We must be clear about this.”
“The latter, no offense.”
“I see.” She ran a hand through her hair to get it off her face. I noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and hadn’t actually appeared to be cold, the more I thought about it. “You asked me what brings me to New York. Would you believe me if I said it was you?”
I held up my hands in surrender. “All right, this is where I officially punch out of this conversation.”
She took a step closer. “Your loneliness, your isolation is like a beacon to me. I am drawn to you. I know your kind. I have seen your future and you will most assuredly die alone. No mate, no children to carry on your legacy.”
“I hate to break it to you, but I’m happily married with three kids who adore me.”
“Not true in the slightest. You have lived alone ever since your cat died of leukemia two years ago.”
“How — how could you know that?”
“The same way I know the first girl to break your heart was Shirley Hartsdale in the sixth grade when she began dating your best friend behind your back and made you the laughing-stock of the school. To this day you hold a distrust of people because of that incident, even friends and family.”
I hadn’t caught the last part of her sentence. My brain was flooded with thoughts of Shirley Hartsdale, someone I hadn’t thought of in years and even now, she left a bad taste in my mouth.
“The organization I work for has that sort of information available to them, not solely on you but everyone on the planet.”
Oh God, I started to panic. She’s a terrorist. Part of some ferry-riding Sleeper Cell that uses attractive women to pry information out of dumb single Americans. My photo was going to land in some Homeland Security dossier marked Al Qaeda Sympathizers. In that moment I just wanted this woman to be away from me. Far, far away.
“I am not a terrorist,” she smiled. “Nor am I a member of a cult. What I am is a member of a peacekeeping task force that seeks to restore balance to the world with the help of people like you, the overlooked, the forgotten, the unloved. More than an organization, the company that employs me is my family and is directly descended from the first family ever to touch foot to the earth. It can become your family, as well.”
“What I can offer you is a love unparalleled.” She touched a finger to my temple and the wind died away. The air barely moved for several moments and I listened as she spoke. My world began spinning savagely. I winced and swallowed hard to prevent nausea from triumphing as her words poured images into my mind, saturated with so much sensory information and emotion that I thought I might have burst at the seams.
“You will want for nothing. I will bear you many children and you will have a family the size of a small nation. A family who will worship and adore you. All this and more if you will simply pledge yourself to me forever and always.”
She moved her finger away and the stillness of the air vanished, and the wind rose once more. I staggered a moment, my mind reeling with the imagery that pressed a palpable weight on me. When I regained my balance and sight, I stood there stunned and in comparative silence after being shown a world that only existed as the flimsiest of pipedreams. The reality finally hit that I was dealing with something way beyond me, something that threatened to swallow me whole if I wasn’t careful.
“And you will be free to follow your dreams. Become a novelist and millions will read your words. You will be well received all around the world. Spend your days lecturing, even teaching and sculpting young minds, if that’s your wish.”
“Or,” she continued. “Write and direct films that interest you and your following will be massive. Fellini, Scorcese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, would not be able to hold a candle to you. Like Woody Allen and release a film each year, all guaranteed blockbusters with the stars of your choice eager to play a role.”
“And all this will happen because of you?”
Her tone was like a knife. “No, because of your pledge to be with me and only me.”
“Like signing my soul over to you?” I knew the answer but had to ask anyway.
“What an archaic notion. All I need from you is your promise, sealed with a kiss. The question is do you want to live the life you have always dreamed of living or not? After years of struggling and going unnoticed by women and society at large, you learned to wear your isolation like a protective shell but this isn’t who you truly are, who you were meant to be. If anyone deserves a shot at the brass ring it most certainly is you, isn’t it?”
I had trouble meeting her eyes. “That’s tempting, it really is… but I can’t.”
“You would turn down everything?”
“I’m too old to believe I can have everything. And old enough to know I won’t be happy. Maybe at first, on the surface, I will, but as time goes by I’ll know deep down that I didn’t earn any of those things. You wouldn’t be with me because you love me. You’d be with me because you needed something from me. Something I’m not smart enough to figure out at the moment.” I felt foolish because I truly couldn’t see the angle. My soul wasn’t worth that much so there must have been something else.
And suddenly I was aware of the nearness of the woman and no longer thought she was in my personal space but that I was in hers and I worried about what being within her sphere of influence might do to me. I was afraid that her essence, the power she projected would have tainted me, marked and cursed me forever.
“It seems I misjudged you. All that talk of accepting love as it finds you and erasing loneliness from the lexicon is all just a mask. Your problem is not being too old, it is being too afraid.”
“What?” my voice cracked as I felt a sudden pang of fear.
“You are a dichotomy of fear. You are afraid of dying home alone, yet you fear leaving your house to meet a woman you can form a relationship with, you fear being friendless yet fear making friends, fear being childless yet fear the responsibility of having children, you fear being loved, fear being hated, you fear life and just about everything else and you are content to let it rot your soul as you waste away out of existence.”
The wind rose in unison with the pitch of her voice and I was hit with a blast so icy it made my eyes water. I wiped the tears away and the woman was gone.
I went inside because I felt the sudden and dire need to be around other people, be close to them, feel their warmth. I settled down in a seat between two strangers, neither of them pleased that I had invaded their personal space, but I was past caring at that moment.
Looking down the opposite end of the ferry I saw the woman talking to a man, most likely another lonely bastard like me. I wanted to go over and warn him but he probably wouldn’t have believed me, and wasn’t it up to him to face his own temptations? Who’s to say that he wouldn’t have been within his rights to accept? And was I a fool for letting the opportunity to end my loneliness pass me by?
Then and there I made a promise to change my life, to put Shirley Hartsdale in perspective as I got on with my life and reconnected with old friends if it wasn’t too late and I pledged to make new friends and as I sought out the love I deserved and stopped waiting for it to come to me. Yes, that was what I was planned to do.
At least that was the lie I told myself.
* * *
Sally forth and be beautiful stranger avoidingly writeful.