At last they were outside. The corner was deserted except for a man who was asleep on his feet, with his back against the subway entrance. She didn’t suggest a taxi. She started walking down the sidewalk as if it made perfect sense – as if it was taking her somewhere.
She stumbled a few times because of her high heels. After about a hundred yards, she took his arm, and it seemed like the two of them had been walking the streets of New York at five in the morning, from the beginning of time.
Later he’d remember the smallest details from that night, though while he was living it, it seemed so disjointed as to be unreal.
Fifth Avenue stretched on forever, but he only recognized it after ten blocks, when he saw the little church.
‘I wonder if it’s open,’ Kay said and stopped.
Then, with unexpected sadness, she said, ‘I’d be so happy if it were.’
She made him try all the doors to see if one was unlocked.
‘A pity,’ she said, sighing and taking his arm again.
Then, a bit farther on, ‘My shoes are killing me.’
‘Do you want to take a taxi?’
‘No, let’s walk.’
He didn’t know her address and didn’t ask her for it. It felt strange to be walking like this through the huge city without the slightest idea of where they were going or what would happen next.
He saw their reflection in a shop window. She was leaning on him a little, perhaps because she was tired, and he thought they looked like a pair of lovers, a sight that just the day before would have made him sick with loneliness.
He had gritted his teeth – especially the last few weeks – whenever he passed a couple that was so plainly a couple, almost reeking of intimacy.
And yet here they were, looking like a couple to anyone who saw them pass. A funny couple.
‘Do you want a whiskey?’ she suddenly asked.
‘I didn’t think there was any place open this time of night.’
But already she was off with this new notion of hers; she led him into a cross street.
‘Wait . . . No, not here. On the next block.’
Nervously, she picked the wrong place twice, then pushed open the grilled door of a little bar where a light shone and a man with a mop stared back at them with startled eyes. She questioned him, and after another fifteen minutes of roaming, they found themselves at last in a basement where three gloomy men were drinking at a counter. She knew the place. She called the bartender Jimmy, but then remembered his name was Teddy. She launched into a long explanation of her mistake, though the bartender couldn’t have cared less. She talked about some people she’d been here with before. The man listened without saying a thing.
It took her nearly half an hour to drink one scotch, and then she wanted another. She lit another cigarette. It was always going to be the last cigarette.
‘As soon as I finish,’ she promised, ‘we can go.’
She grew chatty. Once outside, her grip on Combe’s arm was tighter. She nearly tripped as she stepped onto the curb.
She talked about her daughter. She had a daughter somewhere in Europe, but it was hard to tell where, or why they were no longer together.
They reached Fifty-second, and they could see the lights of Broadway, where silhouetted crowds were streaming along the sidewalks.
It was almost six. They had walked a long way. They were both tired. Out of the blue Combe asked, ‘Where do you live?’
She stopped and looked at him, and at first he thought she was angry. He was wrong, he saw at once. There was trouble, perhaps even real distress there. He realized he didn’t even know what color her eyes were.
She took several hurried steps on her own, as though running away. Then she stopped and waited for him to catch up.
‘Since this morning,’ she said, looking him in the face, her expression tight, ‘I don’t live anywhere.’
Why was he so touched that he wanted to cry? They were standing in front of a shop, their legs so tired they were trembling, with a bitter, early-morning taste in their mouths and an aching emptiness in their heads.
Had the two whiskeys put them on edge?
It was ridiculous. Though they were both teary-eyed, they looked like they were scowling at each other. The gesture seemed sentimental, and yet he seized both her hands.
‘Come on,’ he said.
After a moment’s hesitation, he added, ‘Come on, Kay.’
It was the first time he’d spoken her name.
She asked, already yielding, ‘Where are we going?’
He had no idea. He couldn’t take her to his place, to that hole in the wall he hated, to the room that hadn’t been cleaned for a week, with its unmade bed.
Again they started walking. Now that she had confessed she had nowhere to live, he was afraid of losing her.
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