On a bitter January morning, exactly two months and a day after he arrived in the city, a young actor from Broken Bow, Oklahoma (just a good ol’ boy made good, he would eventually claim in interviews, to the delight of the press) woke up in a fourth-floor studio walk up at the edge of Harlem and Washington Heights. A calico cat, purring like a tiny engine, nuzzled against his chest.
“Hello sweetie,” the actor said, and scratched the cat’s chin. “You’re a lover aren’t you?” He rolled over to his side then, and that’s when he saw her – remembered her actually.
The woman was sitting at the kitchen table, typing on a laptop. She wore blue jeans and an oversized sweater, fraying at the neck. Since waking, she’d tied her hair into a bun, and secured it with a pencil. She was tall and slim, built like an athlete. “The legs, I can see it in the legs,” he had told her at the bar. “Volleyball. No, tennis – definitely tennis.” Later, in her bed, he had marveled at the tattoos of tiny swallows covering the small of her back. They’d been designed to form the outline of a hand, flashing a peace sign. It was regrettable, she told him. A drunken college mistake. Although just the peace sign; not the swallows themselves. “Did you know,” she said, rolling on top of him, her jet black hair falling in his face, “that swallows can fly across oceans. They are amazing creatures, really.”
“Hi,” he said. “Good morning.”
The woman looked up from the screen. She smiled.
“Hello,” she said.
The room was cold and smelled of cigarettes. Crumpled beer cans and an empty bottle of whisky rested on the counter. He pulled the blankets around his shoulders and sat upright. He rubbed the cat’s head and said, “She’s a real sweetheart. O’Reynolds, right?”
“Close,” she said.
“O’Ryan,” he said.
“There you go,” the woman said. She rubbed her eyes and pulled her hair behind her ears. She grabbed her phone off the table, and scrolled the screen. After a moment, very quietly, she said, “Shit.”
“Everything okay?” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “Yes, just something with work.”
When she didn’t add anything else, he stood from the bed, and located his clothes lying in a heap on the floor. He pulled on his briefs, his pants and t-shirt, then found his socks stuffed inside his boots. He sat down on the nearby couch to slip the socks on. The apartment was sparsely furnished: nothing much besides the bed, a coffee table, the small couch, and the kitchen table surrounded by plastic folding chairs. Piles of newspapers and magazines lined the floor along the walls. A space heater was situated in the middle of the room, hooked to an outlet by an extension cord. The blinds were half open, filling the room with a dull grey glow. Outside, the snow continued to fall.
“Well,” he said.
“Well,” the woman said.
“Some night,” he said.
“You could say that,” the woman said. She pointed towards a coffee maker near the fridge. “I just brewed a pot. Would you like some?”
“Sure,” he said. “If that’s alright.”
She stood, and pulled down a mug from the cabinet.
“I’m sorry I don’t have milk or sugar,” she said.
“No, black’s perfect,” he said.
She poured the coffee and walked across the room, balancing the steaming mug by the handle.
“Careful,” she said, and handed it to him.
“Thank you,” he said. He sipped the coffee slowly. The cat, meanwhile, had edged back towards him; it purred and rubbed against his leg, and jumped into his lap. He held the mug away from him and said, “You really are a sweet lover aren’t you? Easy now, it’s hot.”
The woman leaned down and picked the cat up off his lap. She sat down next to him on the couch.
“Someone’s got a crush,” she said.
“It looks that way,” he said.
“She doesn’t do this with everyone,” she said.
“What can I say?” he said. He reached over and stroked the cat’s head. Then he said, “It’s funny, I’ve always been more of a dog person. When I was a kid, we had a cat for a while, Ginger, but that didn’t go so well. She was a stray. My sister found her near our place and decided she was keeping her. My dad said no, but my sister wouldn’t budge. Anyway, Ginger was always running off, staying gone for days. One time she left and just never came back.”
“Sad,” the woman said.
“I guess so,” he said. “She was pretty wild though. She hated my dad. Everyone really, except my sister. She’d bite sometimes when you touched her. And she loved killing things – mice, birds, squirrels. Ginger, she was a real killer.”
He yawned and shivered and rubbed his shoulders. “But what I was saying, O’Ryan’s a sweetie. I could be a cat person with cat like O’Ryan.”
The woman ran her fingers along the cat’s spine.
“She’s my baby,” she said. “When I’m gone my neighbor watches her for me; I miss her like crazy.” The woman touched his hands and said, “You’re freezing. I’m sorry I didn’t have more blankets. It gets cold in here, I know.”
“It’s not too cold,” he said. “You should see where I’ve been staying. I can see my breath.” After a moment he added, “My new place will be better. I’ve got a new place in the works.”
The woman nodded. “It’s hard at first isn’t it?” she said.
“It’s the city,” he said.
A silence opened between them. The woman continued to pet the cat while he sipped his coffee and gazed out the window at the snow and the streets, and the formless grey sky. The roofs of the nearby buildings were covered by satellite dishes and unruly strands of wires. Perched on the closest roof was the rusted steel frame of an abandoned billboard. When he turned back towards her, she was staring at him. He smiled, and made a face, and both of them laughed.
The night before, when he’d approached her, she had told him right from the start that he was much too young.
“Well,” he said. “My mamaw always called me an old soul.”
“Your who?” the woman said.
She had been there with a group of friends. They were celebrating a birthday - her best friend’s 40th, she said over the music. He decided to splurge and buy a round of Tequila. They drank the shots and began to dance. She wore leather pants with a low-cut blouse. Her crow’s feet were barely noticeable beneath the makeup. Towards the end of the night, he overheard the best friend say, Oh, live a little! and nudge her towards him. She’d gone to the bathroom then, and when she returned, lips red and glossy, she touched him on the shoulder, and said, “Tell me more about your mamaw.”
“So,” he said, and finished the last of his coffee. “I guess you have a long day ahead?”
She grinned, and cleared her throat. After a long pause she said, “Unfortunately, yes. And I’m leaving Saturday, so there’s quite a bit to do.”
“Right,” he said. “How long this time?”
She shrugged. “It depends.”
“Are you nervous?” he said. “Are you ever nervous?”
“Nervous isn’t quite the word,” she said.
“That makes sense,” he said. “But still. It must be hard.”
The woman seemed to consider this. “It’s work,” she said.
He nodded and again reached for the cat and stroked it along its head.
“Well, ok then,” he said. “I should probably get going myself.” He pointed out the window. “The train’s back that way right?”
“Yes,” she said. “Just a few blocks.”
She set the cat on the floor, and held out her hand to take his mug. He passed her the mug and she stood and walked it to the sink. He slipped on his boots and met her at the doorway. Facing her there, he once more noticed her necklace with the large gold pendant. On the front of the pendant was an engraved image of water wheels – norias, she called them.
He had first asked about the necklace walking home from the bar. He had touched it and said it was interesting but she only nodded. Then, back at her apartment, sitting at the table, he mentioned it again. The bottle of whisky rested between them. The snow was falling in sheets and the wind was howling. The woman’s expression changed; her eyes shifted away from him. She stood and walked to the freezer and refilled each of their glasses with ice.
“I don’t mean to pry,” he said.
She returned to the table and handed him the glass. She poured whisky into each of their glasses and said, “No, you didn’t pry.”
The wheels, she explained, were in Syria, on a river in an ancient city. She’d been born in the city to a prosperous family, a line of people known for their textiles and carpets. In the early eighties, when the uprisings spread, she’d only been a few years old. The government knew no bounds with their response. They dumped the bodies into the river – men, women and children, by the thousands. Her parents were among the luckiest, making their way to England, then America where they started over with the help of a cousin. As she told him her story she lit cigarette after cigarette. She opened the bottle and refilled their glasses. “And today,” she said, her eyes flashing. “It’s happening all over again. Right before our eyes. It’s happening right before our eyes and the world does nothing.”
“Listen,” he said, facing her near the door. “It was great meeting you. I had fun.”
“I did too,” she said. She leaned in and hugged him and they briefly kissed.
“I’ll call you,” he said. “Sometime when you’re back.”
She nodded, but said nothing and opened the door.
“Take care,” he said, and stepped into the hallway. “Good luck with the reporting.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Good luck to you too. I hope things work out for you here.”
Just then the cat snuck past the woman’s legs into the hall. He bent down and caught the cat in his hands.
“You have to stay here O’Ryan,” he said, and handed the cat back.
The woman took hold of her cat. She grabbed one of the cat’s paws and waved it.
“Say goodbye,” she said into the cat’s ear.
“Goodbye, O’Ryan,” he said. “Goodbye,” he said to the woman, and started for the stairs.
The café faced a busy street at the edge of Beirut’s central business district. The woman sat at an outdoor table, sipping Arak and picking at a plate of fish. The sun hovered low at the edge of the horizon but the air was still hot and thick. Across the table, the new photographer she’d hired – and as of recently, taken into her bed – stared into the crowd of passing people. Occasionally his eyes drifted back to the woman. With his knife, he speared a meatball on his plate. He bit the meatball in half and swallowed. He picked up his napkin, wiped his mouth, and tossed it into the center of the table.
“Careful,” the woman said. “Someone might think you’re pouting.”
“I’m tired,” the photographer said.
“Welcome to the club,” the woman said.
“Of a lot of things, really,” the man added.
“Ah,” the woman said. “There it is.”
Just then the woman heard her phone vibrate on the table. She glanced down at the screen. It was a text from a friend back at home. “Isn’t this the best thing ever,” the text read, just above a link.
“Forget you and me for a second,” the man said. “Bottom line, they are toying with us; it’s obvious. It’s so fucking obvious and you don’t seem to see it. We’re going to waste a week dealing with these assholes and we’re going to get nothing. You’ve got a deadline and I’ve got one too, and we’ve got exactly fuck all.”
“Did I ever tell you you’re cute when you’re angry?” the woman said, and picked up her phone. She clinked on the link, which took her to an article in the arts section of the Times. It was a review of a new Broadway play. An image accompanied the article, and the woman stared for a long time at the faces in the picture – one in particular.
The photographer, meanwhile, finished the last of his meal, and glanced at his watch. He scanned the café, and raised his arm, signaling the waiter.
“I’m going to my room,” he said.
“Good, get some rest,” the woman said. “Get some rest and you’ll be good as new.”
“You really are amazing,” he said. “Truly. Just when I think you can’t be more of a cunt.”
“Please don’t get nasty,” the woman said, without looking up. “You don’t do nasty very well.”
The play, she was reading, centered on a Nazi soldier’s love affair with a young Jewish shopkeeper. The picture showed the two lead characters, the Nazi and the shopkeeper – a famous actress, as it happened – entwined in a fierce embrace.
“Your ego,” the photographer said. “It must be so much work.”
She briefly looked at him and smiled. She pulled a cigarette from the pack on the table. She lit the cigarette and took a long slow draw.
“Honestly,” the photographer said. “How did you get this way? I genuinely want to know.”
Saying nothing, she returned to her phone. In the play’s final act, according to the reviewer, the story veered towards tragedy for all involved. What occurs is definitely fraught. Fraught and full of the kind of acting that triggers palpitations in the deepest recesses of the heart.
“How about that,” the woman said. “Only in the city.”
“What’s that,” the man said.
“Oh, nothing,” she said.
“Look at me, for Christ’s sake,” the man said.
The woman pulled a long drag of the cigarette and exhaled, the smoke rising around her features in a billowy cloud. At last she looked up. The photographer, she saw, had gone red in the face.
“Oh, honey,” she said, and reached for him. She took his hand in hers and kissed the top of his fingers. “Don’t you know it always works out?” she said. “Haven’t you learned it always just does?”
Andrew Ross is a third-year MFA candidate at The University of Memphis, where he recently served as fiction editor for The Pinch. His fiction and journalism have appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Fringe, Memphis Magazine, The Daily Beast, and various newspapers.