“Fall is here,” Cece said as if fall weren’t a season but an uninvited guest waiting at an unopened door.
She rested her palm at her temple, her fingers lost in the curls of her highlighted hair.
“I guess so,” I replied.
“You know what that means?” she asked as she used her middle finger of her free hand to punch the keys on the calculator. Her eyes were still downcast, her lips a red pout.
“Bella is going on maternity leave soon. So it means overtime for you.”
I sprayed a long arc of Windex onto the mirror in front of me. I watched thin blue streams slide down the glass. On the wall, rows of Ray-Bans shone dull shades of brown and green and gray, mocking me. I saw mini reflections of myself in a row reserved for mirrored lenses. I think I sighed.
“What you’re not happy about the overtime?” she almost snapped. Almost.
“No, I’m ecstatic,” I said, “But could I possibly go out for a cigarette?”
She looked up from the papers in front of her on the counter, her blue Bic held midair. She squirmed.
“Fine but don’t take too long.”
I left streams of Windex on the mirror. I left Cece turtling over a calculator and stale pages. Outside, I walked next door to the Subway Inn and stood under the sign that blared “bar” in bright red. I lit the cigarette. No magic genie appeared. I inhaled and released, thinking still of imminent overtime.
She stumbled out of the bar in six-inch Jimmy Choo heels, the last rays of sun catching glints of her vanishing sobriety. She wore a black cocktail dress obscured partly by her blue pashmina. She walked over and stopped in front of me, a sliver of blonde hair falling loose from her bun and running to her glossed pink lips.
“Girl give me a cigarette,” she said.
I said nothing but I think I grunted. I looked away from her in defiance. I was bold. I was proud. I was no longer in Cece’s world of frames and lenses.
“Give me a fucking cigarette…please?” she begged.
I reached in my pocket, fumbled, pulled my hand out, handed her a cigarette.
“Now leave me the fuck alone,” I said.
“I will as soon as you give me a light.”
“Lighter?” I offered sarcastically as I cupped my hand and awaited the touch of cigarette and flame.
She took the lighter from my hand, her touch soft, almost seductive. Almost.
“So why are you here?” she asked.
She blew out a swirl of smoke. She handed me back my lighter.
“I’m here because my jackass boyfriend wanted to watch the game. Why are you here?”
“I’m not here,” I said. “I’m next door, I work next door. I just came out for a cigarette.”
“So what’s next door?”
Her eyes were glazed and the blue in them was like a glass paperweight I had held once, transparent yet heavy.
“Do you wear colored contacts?” I asked.
“Well that’s what’s fucking next door. It’s an optical place.”
“No I don’t wear contacts.”
“Your eyes are beautiful.”
“What are you a fucking dyke?” she asked.
She inhaled and then coughed all the smoke out.
“I am,” I said. “And I know you’re not so fucking chill.”
“I’m feeling good right about now,” she said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
Across the street, a toy tricycle shone red in the vanishing sun.
She tapped her left nostril, where the diamond stud was.
“In the bathroom,” she said. “Ever do coke?”
“No,” I said.
My cigarette was finished. I couldn’t pull any more smoke from the tip of the filter. I threw it down, stepped on it. And then I lingered, stayed, swayed under autumn light and the gaze of a stranger.
“My name’s Maxine,” she said.
“My name’s not really any of your business.”
“There we fucking go again. What’s with the attitude anyway?”
I stared at her. She let her cigarette fall from between her fingertips, from grace. The orange tip glowered against the backdrop of grey concrete.
“So you going back inside, no name?”
The silence was punctuated by a siren wailing in the distance. Near us a man was standing at the curb reciting biblical versus, warning against the evils of the world.
“Tell me something,” she said, “Why do people drink anyway?”
“Why do you?”
“Just to forget.”
“I’m not a fucking therapist,” I said. “I don’t really know.”
She touched my cheek with her palm and I almost turned my face to kiss her lines of fate. Almost.
“I drink,” she said, “to forget that I left the love of my life for a piece of shit because one had money and the other didn’t.”
“Did you really?” I asked.
“Yes. I left a man for another man who was richer and better looking. I drink to forget that. What do you drink to forget?”
Her hand was still resting on my cheek.
“I drink to forget I sell glasses for a living and when I’m really drunk or drunk enough I pretend I’m a writer. I pretend I’m accepting awards and give speeches to empty rooms.”
She slipped her fingers down to my jaw and then slowly pulled her hand away.
“What’s it like to write?” she asked.
“No one’s ever asked me that before so I don’t really know how to answer you.”
Her blue eyes met my pale green.
“Writing…it feels fake when you’re doing it. Like you’re grazing but never quite touching what’s real.”
“Like a convoluted orgasm. Fucking fantastic!”
“Something like that.”
“No it sounds just like that.”
“You go around faking orgasms?”
“I fake life,” she said. “The rest is just misery.”
I looked across the street at the Bloomingdale’s Prada model, slim, defiant and steady. She looked a lot like Maxine except the hair was cropped whereas Maxine’s was in a bun.
“You’re a fucking trip, girl with no name.”
I said nothing. I contemplated going back to Cece and almost did. Almost.
“That’s a long smoke break you’re taking, she said. “Very passive aggressive of you.”
“I bet you wish you could.”
I turned to go back. She placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t go just yet,” she said.
“Why the hell not?”
“I’m enjoying our tryst.”
I turned around and she leaned forward, placed a soft kiss on my lips.
“What are you doing?”
She leaned back against the brick.
“Girl, give me another cigarette.”
I obliged. At the corner, the man uttering the bible verses took of his shirt. Across the street, the pretzel hot dog knish cart man closed his red and yellow umbrella. The pedestrian light changed from orange lit hand to white lit man. Autumn sang in silence.
“We could be fast friends,” she said.
“I doubt that.”
“You think you’re too good for me, girl?”
“Just different is all.”
She laughed long time.
“Maybe you don’t do the coke. Maybe you don’t even drink very much, who knows? Maybe your hair’s a soft brown not blonde and maybe you’re darker than I am. But I bet you’re aching from something for something to something.”
“I think you’re high and drunk.”
“If we’re so different, why are you here talking to me?”
“Honestly, I’m here talking to you because I don’t want to Windex another fucking mirror or straighten another frame. I’m talking to you because you’re the lesser of two evils right now.”
She shrugged. She tugged at her bun and her hair fell loose to her shoulders, past her shoulders somewhere to the middle of her back.
“Girl, you ever been in love?”
“Girl, you lie.”
“Why the fuck do you care anyway?”
“I collect the love stories of the world.”
“To let them fall at my feet when I remember what I have done.”
“I think I have to go,” I said finally.
“Don’t go, girl. Stay and talk to me. My boyfriend’s inside watching the fucking game.”
“And this is my problem?”
“What are you going back to anyway? Talk to me. Tell me why people fall in love.”
“How the fuck should I know?” I said.
“Why’d you fall in love, girl?”
“Because she brought me peace.”
I looked above her to where the sign advertised authentic awesome atomic wings. Authentic awesome atomic world I thought.
“I fell in love with him hard,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
“Then why’d you leave?”
She laughed. From inside the bar there came claps and cheers and boos all at once. As the door of the bar opened the noise spilled onto the sidewalk past us past the grate above the subway and into the street.
Through the bar door came a man. He was a handsome man with a square jaw and jet-black hair and eyebrows. He had a thin chinstrap and goatee that made him look serious. All work no play.
“Max they fucking lost. Where the fuck have you been?” he bellowed.
“Here, Hector. Here.”
He walked to her in three strides of his long legs. His Ferragamo loafers shone bright.
I wasn’t aware of how angry he was until he swung at her, a clear-cut blow straight to the side of her nose. The blood spilled ran fell from her left nostril. The diamond stud gleamed red. Wet. Shining. Surviving.
She laughed. The blood entered her mouth, stained her teeth.
“Oh Hector,” she said, “lighten the fuck up.”
“I’m so sorry baby,” he said. “You just make me so mad sometimes.”
He embraced her waist and nuzzled her neck. The blood made his goatee glisten in places, marked streaks across his skin. Her fingers stroked the back of his head. When his tongue entered her mouth past the strawberry lips, I turned to leave.
“Hey girl,” she said.
I stopped and turned.
“Thanks for the cigs.”
“Anytime,” I said as I tried to look into her eyes and not at her bloody face. I watched them walk to a white 7 series BMW parked at the curb across the street. Lucky fucking parking I thought. I watched them cross in the middle of the street, walk to the car, get in the car, close doors. I heard the ignition as he turned the key. I watched them signal, pull out, speed past light.
“My name is Neelam,” I wanted to scream. I almost did. Almost.
As I turned the key to enter the store, Cece looked up from her papers.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I softly offered.
I picked up the bottle of Windex and sprayed another mirror. As I gazed into the glass, I saw myself for what seemed the first time that day. Although I had sprayed enough mirrors that it must have been the eighth or ninth.
I wiped the mirror dry (look Cece, no streaks) and turned to walk away.
“Oh my God!” Cece shrieked.
I turned around and watched my reflection rock back and forth on the edge of the counter.
“Catch it!” Cece screamed, “That mirror is going to fall!”