We decided to start with a con. She was small, with blonde hair and an unidentifiable accent that gave her voice the warped vowels and ee-haw rhythms of a handsaw. She approached him on the footbridge, made a startled noise, and looked down. His eyes followed hers, and there—exactly midway between them—was a golden ring. She picked it up first, having been, after all, the one who had put it there the instant before he caught sight of her.
We liked this situation because it posed a challenge: How could anything ever develop between them if the sole reason they met was that she was trying to extract money from him? But it only took a couple of uncertain glances and an obliging tilt of the head to make clear that he was the perfect foil for her: not stupid so much as ignorant and slow on the uptake.
He was twenty-eight; she was twenty-two, but they both had the cautious gestures and expressions of people decades older. There was pain in their eyes. His showed the expectation that he would be hurt, but also an alertness to the pain of others. He was more comfortable with those who had suffered: the victims of this world. Her eyes revealed the history of her pain—but only in the form of her determination never to experience it again.
“Oh!” she said.
He said, “Wow!” and pulled back his hand as she picked up the ring. “Incredible!”
Without meeting his eye, she asked, “How you think it get here?”
“I don’t know…I mean, it couldn’t have just fallen off.”
The ring looked like a wedding band, but broader than most—and so it seemed a little tacky, as if its owner had cared too much about showing off gold.
The woman held it up and pointed to a small symbol on its inner surface. “What this say?”
Slightly farsighted, he had to squint. “I don’t know. It looks like a jeweler’s mark.”
This was good: Their intersecting gazes and the nearness of their heads were creating a small intimacy in a wilderness of indifference. We jazzed it a little with a puff of breeze that caused a lock of her blond hair to trail aesthetically across her cheek and lips, and with a sun gleam off a river wave to set the mossy green of his eyes aflame.
But then she pushed things too fast: “Here.” She dropped the ring into his hand.
“Wha—” His eyebrows pointed toward the center of his forehead; his lips made an “O” of infantile confusion.
He tried to give the ring back, but she pushed it away. “No!” She held up her splayed hand so that he could see her fingers. “Too big for me.”
“But you found it.” This time he managed to place the ring in the palm of her hand.
“No. You did. I just pick it up.”
This was the moment he experienced his first inkling that he was being conned. It came to him as a sort of gastric pang, which is to say as something to be ignored.
“You keep.” She put the ring back into his hand. “For your love.”
This was her masterstroke. He had no love. He wanted love. (We had made sure of that in the beginning.) And so his mind whirred and he lost all independence of will.
A tender smile that was also part wince crossed her face as she folded his thick, soft fingers over the ring. His lips parted, his eyes did that quicksilver glint that betokens the immanence of speech, but no words came.
As she turned away, her face went dead. Then she was hurrying across the bridge, in the direction from which he had just come. One of the reasons why we had chosen her was that she had appealingly compact and spherical buttocks, and so would always make a good final impression. And indeed his eyes focused on that part of her as she hurried away, his lips still parted, his mind still whirring.
His name was Philip. Hers: Esme.
As soon as he was alone, Philip began to turn in circles, surveying the people passing in both directions across the narrow footbridge, looking for whomever might have lost the ring. According to one report, he had a remarkably precise image in mind of what that person would look like: A woman. Sixty years old. Fat. Head bent, eyes sweeping right to left, left to right, as she moved across the bridge, clearly having to restrain herself from moving faster, equally clearly already convinced of the futility of her search. Hence, the single tear streaming down each cheek. Hence, the quiet noises of despair periodically escaping her lips and nose.
Philip was so intent on finding this woman that he didn’t even notice Esme had returned until he felt her fingers jab his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Mister.”
He looked at her.
“You give me money for sandwich.” She gestured toward her mouth with clumped-together fingers as if she were cramming a morsel into it.
Philip’s eyebrows pointed, once again, toward the center of his forehead. His lips made that zero. “Hunh?”
“Sandwich.” She gestured again. “Me hungry. You give me money for sandwich.”
“Oh,” he said. The truth had arrived, and the world was suddenly simpler: no old woman to search for; gone too that ache of lost opportunity he had felt as he watched Esme walk away. Now everything was easy.
He handed the ring back to her, but she pushed it away.
“No. For you.” She pointed at the center of her chest. “Me, hungry. You give me money for sandwich.”
A look of perturbation on his brow. The world getting less simple again. He plunged his hand into his pocket, pulled out some coins and gave them to her.
She snatched them from his fingers, and plunged them into her own pocket. “No. Not enough. I need money for sandwich.”
His perturbation intensified. He put his hand into his pocket and gave her his remaining change.
“No,” she said. “You buy me sandwich.”
“That’s all I have,” he said, but he didn’t turn away.
“More.” She put both hands on her stomach. “I very hungry.” Seeing him waver, she added, “I give you ring. You buy me sandwich.”
He was helpless before the notion that a pretty girl he had never seen before should have given him a gift—especially as he had not yet definitively concluded the ring was brass. He took out his wallet and gave her two bills. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m not going to give you any more.”
This is the moment we ended up talking about so much afterward: Her gaze lifted from the green of the bills remaining in his wallet to the green of his eyes. It seemed, at first, that she was going to ask for more, but then her expression went somber.
Some of us argued that she felt a twinge of shame, others that she was merely cutting her losses.
In any event, without another word, she turned and walked away.
He stood watching as she grew smaller and smaller and finally disappeared amid the swarm of pedestrians moving along the esplanade on the far side of the river.
Philip’s was the loneliness of a man to whom nothing had ever really happened: Dust furze under his bed, ochre splotches on the toilet rim, a tendency to eat meals out of the pans in which they were cooked, but all of his books aligned with the edge of the bookshelf, no empty bottles scattered on the floor, no knives plunged up to their hilts in the sheetrock.
Esme’s was the loneliness of a woman whose younger sister came home every day at dawn, and went to sleep with a pistol under her pillow. Whose mother could not move the left side of her mouth, her left arm, or her left leg, and only made it between bed and bathroom by pivoting on a crutch and hopping on her right foot. Whose father, long ago, in the country they had left forever, had been dragged into the street by soldiers, and reduced to a jolting rag doll by an extended machine-gun blast. This was the same country where her mother had once drawn faces on acorns, placed them in cabbage flowers, and said they were elf babies. Where her sister had hung by her knees from a bar on a swing set, the skirt of her dress completely covering her face, and had swung back and forth crying, “Look at me! I’m a church bell! Ding-dong! Ding-dong!” The same country where, when Esme was four years old, her father had come home from work wearing a red tie dotted with winged hamburgers. She laughed in such delight at the tie that her father took it off right there in the kitchen and knotted it around her bare neck, the silk so smooth and cool.
In other words, Esme’s was what we call “packed” loneliness: less isolation than a dance between hopelessness and rage. From our point of view it was the most interesting variety of loneliness, in that it predisposed her to extremes of action and mood. But, by that same token, it was volatile, unpredictable, and very hard to manipulate.
The day Esme met Philip, she placed eight bills, a handful of change, and the three remaining rings of the seven she had gone out with on the bed beside her mother’s knee. “Do you think this is a vacation?” her mother said. “Do you think you don’t have to work? Your sister is willing to work. Do you think you are better than your sister?” Her mother swept the bills, coins, and rings off her bed with her one good hand, causing them to clatter, roll, and whisper on the floorboards. “Pick that up,” her mother said. And when Esme had restored the money and the rings to the place beside her mother’s knee, her mother said, “How are we going to eat if this is all the money you bring home? How are we going to pay the rent?” Her mother gestured with her crutch. “Why should your sister do all the work? Do you think you’re a princess?” Esme looked at the floor and waited. “Talk to your sister,” her mother said. “I don’t care how you make your money. Talk to your sister. If your sister can do it, so can you.” Her mother closed her eyes, and spoke without opening them again: “Put the money in the drawer.”
When her mother’s eyes were closed, Esme couldn’t recognize her. That woman’s body lying on the bed was not her mother’s body. That face bloated, crooked, discolored, that face like a pillow left out in the rain, was not her mother’s face.
“Put the money in the drawer,” her mother said. “Leave me alone.”
Later, when Esme was curled in her own bed, her back to her mother, we introduced into her thoughts the memory of the befuddled longing in Philip’s eyes when she told him the ring was for his love. The humanists among us were waiting for some sign of her susceptibility: a tear, a sigh, a remorseful wince. Nothing. She closed her eyes, and, not long afterward, her mouth fell open and a noise began to rise from her respiratory tract like shovelfuls of walnuts rattling down a wooden chute.
One of us became obsessed with the idea of snow. Then another suggested slush, and that inspired us all. But even a wet snowstorm would be very hard to arrange, given that this was October. The expense would be enormous; we’d have to call in political favors and act expeditiously. Any feeling that might have been awakened between Philip and Esme would die if neglected too long. Within seconds of making our decision, we were dashing up and down the stairs, making phone calls, booking flights. This was just the sort of challenge we liked most, the sort that gave our lives meaning.
On cold and windy days, Esme stayed away from the rivers, and generally worked Palace Park because of all the tourists, while Philip, precisely to avoid those tourists, would commute to his job along Modicum Alley, half a block away. So the first thing we did was shut down the alley for repairs, and direct pedestrians up Dangerfield toward the park. That turned out to be a lot of fun. I got to be one of the construction workers, and wore a yellowish reflective vest and an orange hardhat. When I saw Philip approaching along the sidewalk, the crinkle of bafflement on his forehead rearranging itself into irritation, I waved my ultra-orange plastic flag up the avenue and said, “This way, this way,” as if by uttering these same two syllables all morning I had achieved a Zen empty-mindedness and no longer knew what I was saying. It worked perfectly. Philip did exactly as directed without even noticing me. The instant he was out of sight, I flung my vest, hardhat, and flag into the back of a van, and headed up to Palace Park in a watch cap and bubble coat.
The truth is, we never quite managed the slush, only dirty snow. But maybe that was better, since it made the ring harder to see. Esme had taken her usual position, just past the Underground entrance, where the sidewalk opens up in front of the park gates. She kept uttering her startled, “Oh!” without anyone noticing the ring lying right in front of her. Every now and then, it would get buried in the snow, and she would have to pick it up, walk around the Underground entrance, and surreptitiously drop it again. “Oh!” she cried again and again, “Oh!” “Oh!” “Oh!”—her face always the perfect image of innocent astonishment. But no one ever spotted the ring, and almost no one even gave her a sidelong glance.
Philip himself might not have noticed her had I not brought him to a halt by barreling across his path, head lowered, ranting into my cell phone about a child custody battle. Philip watched Esme long enough to see her exclaim at the ring more than once, her shoulders hunched inside her jean jacket, her fingers and nose radiantly red, snowflakes on her eyelashes. When, at last, he stood right in front of her, the “Oh!” went silent in her throat, and she only stared at him, as if she were waiting for him to hit her.
“Here,” he said, handing her all the money he had in his wallet. “For your love!”
“Oh,” she said, softly, hardly glancing at the money as she stuffed it into her pocket. When she raised her eyes again, he was gone.
Here is a photograph of Philip sitting on the edge of his bed that very night. He is thinking of the bewilderment he witnessed in Esme’s tight, cold face. The snowflakes on her eyelashes. The photograph is a little too blurry for you to be able to tell, but the reason his hands are together in his lap is that he is fingering the ring. Do you see how his eyes are turned toward the ceiling? That’s an indication, I think, of how intently he is occupied by the circle of brass between his fingertips, and by the images it suggests.
After his first encounter with Esme, he had thrown the ring into a bowl on the shelf over his kitchen sink. But from now on he would keep it in the drawer of his bedside table.
That night, several of us wanted to insert some erotic fantasy into his thoughts, but I argued that it was too soon, that if we upped the stakes so high, he would be too self-conscious the next time he saw her. Reluctantly my opponents acceded.
After a while, Philip stopped cutting through Modicum Alley on his way to work, and walked instead via Dangerfield and Palace Park West, lingering at the Underground entrance as if he were fascinated by its stoic, postwar anti-aestheticism. Sometimes he would return to the park at lunchtime, or take the esplanade along the river, and walk back and forth across Sullivan Footbridge, which was where he first encountered Esme. It was more than a month before he saw her again—a warm lunch hour in early December. People were walking around with their winter coats unzipped, their scarves stuffed into their pockets. But Esme’s jean jacket was buttoned to her neck, the collar flipped up, her nose radiant red again, her fingers also, and there was a bluish duskiness under her eyes.
She was talking to a gorilla-gutted man, with long, silver-wired hair fanning out from under his baseball cap. The man was holding out something very small between his thumb and index finger. As Philip watched, Esme pushed the man’s hand back toward his chest and clearly spoke the words—although Philip was too far away to hear—“For your love.” The man laughed and, for a moment, seemed not to know what to do. Then he flicked the ring into Esme’s face and walked away.
Philip, too, walked away, possessed by an emotional constellation none of us could read. Anger seemed to predominate, although whether that anger was primarily at himself or the man who had flicked the ring was impossible to ascertain. One memory clip kept replaying in Philip’s mind, however, not just as he hurried from the park, but that night and for days afterward. He kept seeing the shock and pain in Esme’s face as the ring struck just below her eye, then her fury as she shouted after the man, veins bulging on her forehead and neck. But what Philip most paid attention to was how, the instant she stopped yelling, the anger went out of her face. Her cheeks blanched, and her eyes shifted without focusing, as if she were watching something inside her head. That was the last Philip saw of her before he turned away.
He next encountered her one frigid Saturday afternoon, about a week later, as he was crossing Rosenberg Square on his way to the Browridge Museum, where he was a conservator in the Ancient and Imaginary Musical Instruments Collection. She was standing by the boarded-up fountain, practicing her trade, but no one ever stopped, no matter how many times she opened her mouth in surprise and gestured at the fallen ring. Her face had gone gray with the cold; her nose was blue. She trembled visibly inside her jean jacket. Philip turned his back, and disappeared down Fifth Street. When he returned he was carrying a white paper bag.
He walked straight up to her. “Here.”
She took the bag, reflexively, if only to stop it falling to the ground, then looked at him uncertainly over its rolled-up top.
“It’s a ham sandwich,” Philip said. When she only seemed to grow more puzzled, he added, “I hope that’s okay. After I got it, I thought maybe I should have gotten you roast beef, or turkey. If you want, I can get you another.”
Her face went impassive. She put her hand into the bag and pulled out the sandwich: a hero, plastic-wrapped, a barcode sticker slapped on the side. “No, this good.” She rocked the sandwich from end to end, staring at it as if she couldn’t quite believe it was real.
“Are you sure?” Philip said. “It’s no problem.”
“No. This good.” She lifted the sandwich by way of demonstration. “Thank you.” Then she smiled.
This was the first time he had ever seen her smile. Objectively the smile ruined the proportions of her face, causing her cheeks to bulge into knobs just below her eyes, and broadening her jaw, making it squat, spadelike. Also it was a closed-lip smile, a smile that wanted to swallow itself, a smile that felt it ought not to have come into the world.
Philip smiled too—not a closed-lip smile, although that might have been better, since his teeth were crooked, chipped. In part because of his teeth, his smile did not seem so much childlike as canine—expressing all the guilelessness of a puppy whose rear end is being whipped back and forth by its happily snapping tail.
She was looking at the sandwich as if she couldn’t wait to open it. A shiver passed from one shoulder to the other.
“You can’t eat that out here,” Philip said. “Maybe we should go someplace.” Philip had not intended to make this suggestion, and as it passed his lips, he began to sweat inside his winter coat.
Esme’s face, on which the traces of her smile still lingered, went dead. Then she gave him a new smile, but it, too, was dead. “Sure. Where you want?”
“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“No,” she said. “I want.” Her smile was replaced by a look of tremulous uneasiness that made her seem more like someone Philip could talk to.
He jerked his head in the direction of Fifth Street. “There’s a café near here. Let’s get something hot to drink.”
“Okay.” Without looking at him, she added, “If that what you want.”
They hardly spoke as they walked. Philip made remarks like, “It’s just over here…. We’re almost there…,” to which Esme only nodded, or made barely audible throat noises.
The café was called Mud. They both got cappuccinos, and took seats at a table in the back. She sat on her hands to make them warm. He folded his hands around his cup. The wrapped sandwich lay on the table between them.
“You should eat that,” he said.
“Yes.” She peeled back the tangled plastic and put the end of the sandwich into her mouth. The whole time she ate, she looked down at the table or out the window, as if he wasn’t there.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“Yes.” She fixed her eyes on the crumpled sugar packet beside her cup, took another bite and chewed for a while. “You give me money. Thank you.” She glanced at him, but her gaze revealed not one iota of gratitude.
“I was surprise,” she said. “A lot of money.” No glance this time. She stuffed the sandwich into her mouth and bit off more than she could comfort- ably manage.
“Do you remember meeting me before?”
It was a long while before she could speak, and when she did, he saw a mush of bread and a couple of slivers of lettuce on her tongue. “No.”
“On the Sullivan Footbridge,” he said.
She had taken another bite, but a smaller one, so only nodded. After a moment, she swallowed and wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist. “Oh, yes. I remember.”
Philip suspected that, in fact, she didn’t remember (he was wrong; she did), but he couldn’t think of a way of finding out that wouldn’t make him seem pathetic or weird. He wanted to ask her about her life—where she came from, why she had to stand out on the street in all weathers—but her averted gaze and the sullen set of her lips made it impossible for him to talk.
He and Esme sat side by side in total silence for most of ten minutes, her bites growing smaller and smaller, every one of them taking longer to chew, as if she were a prisoner on death row, forcing herself through her last meal only as a way of staving off the inevitable. Philip’s hands and face were dewy with sweat. Why had he invited her to have a coffee with him? He felt like a fool.
When at last she had finished her sandwich and poured down her final swallow of coffee, she went silent and motionless and seemed to grow dingy. After a moment, she crumpled up her napkin and dropped it on the table, her fingers hovering indecisively in midair—trembling.
“Well!” Philip put both hands down flat on the table. “Want anything else?”
Her voice was barely above a whisper. “No, thank you.” She gave him a frightened glance, looked away, then looked back again and gave him another of her dead smiles.
“Guess we better be going,” he said.
“Okay.” She wiped the crumbs from her lap and stood up. She had not unbuttoned her jean jacket the entire time she had been in the café.
“Goodbye,” Philip said out on the sidewalk. “Hope everything…you know….” He shrugged helplessly, and half turned to leave.
She was looking at him now, her face unstable with worry. When she spoke, her voice was so quiet it seemed to subtract more than it gave to the street noise: “Goodbye.”
Philip had already taken a step when she called out behind him, “Wait!”
He turned and saw that the instability on her face had intensified to something like hysteria. “I can show you,” she said, “how thank you I am. You want? We go someplace. I can. You know. Make you happy. I can make you happy for. You know. Thank you.”
She took hold of his wrist with one hand and grabbed his fingertips with the other. She was smiling again. Not her dead smile, or not exactly. There was something both pathetic and malicious about it, and Philip could not bear to look at her.
“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s not what I…. That’s not why—”
He walked away without finishing his sentence.
Esme stood for a long while watching him disappear down the block. When at last she set off in the direction of Rosenberg Square, her step was lighter than it had been all day.
There was a lot of heavy sighing and head-scratching at our next Morning Council. Most of us thought that Esme and Philip’s interaction at the café and, especially, out on the sidewalk had been an unmitigated disaster, and that when they ran into each other again, their embarrassment would be so extreme they would pass without talking, without even acknowledging they had seen each other. “Well, gentlemen,” said Carmine, “perhaps the time has come to put this project in the box and move on to more productive ventures. Anyone want to second my motion?”
“Not at all,” I said. (Gentian, I saw, agreed with me instantly.) “We wouldn’t have had a prayer of success if Esme hadn’t made her proposition and Philip rejected it. Now that he has, she’s hooked. She’ll be putty in our fingers.”
“Hear, hear!” said Gentian.
“But what about Philip?” Carmine asked. “It strikes me that, from now on, his feelings about Esme are going to be decidedly less…”—Carmine looked out the window, as if searching for the missing word among the treetops and clouds—“…well, less sentimental.”
“Trust me,” I said. “There is absolutely no limit to Philip’s sentimentality.”
“Hear, hear!” said Gentian, and a couple of others.
“It’s all a matter of circumstance,” I said. “You’ll see.”
Philip’s primary duty at the Browridge was to reconstruct musical instruments known only through references in ancient manuscripts or their depictions in art. He had recently begun working on an Amenhotep avian organ: a water-powered assemblage of bellows, ivory flutes, and music-box-style pronged copper cylinders said to have been owned by Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the fourteenth century BC, and reputedly capable of imitating the song of every bird on earth. Philip’s reconstruction had been going exceptionally well until he discovered that half of all the birds that had existed at the time of Amenhotep were now extinct. In despair, he took to wandering the parks, hoping that if he listened attentively enough to the harsh voices of the winter birds—jays, crows, ravens—he might be able to intuit the multitudinous songs that had once poured from the avian organ, and thus divine how to sculpt the interiors of the elephant-tusk flutes and where to place the prongs on the copper cylinders.
Technically we were forbidden to bring extinct species back to life (or, for that matter, to undo any other committee’s work), but that did not mean that we couldn’t introduce variations. One afternoon, as Philip was walking beneath the lindens on Liberation Boulevard, we placed an emerald-throated hoopoe on a low and leafless limb, where it proceeded to emit a cascading fugue of trills, pops, tremolos, tweets, and plaintive cries that might have been the voice of the world’s very first spring. In fact, there has never been any such bird as the emerald-throated hoopoe, nor is the metallic hooting of an actual hoopoe worth more than two seconds of attention, but, knowing none of this, the instant Philip heard the song, he stopped midstep, his mouth fell open, and his eyes goggled.
No sooner had the hoopoe attracted Philip’s attention than—exactly as she had been trained (I had, in fact, spent weeks at our aviary training her myself)—she began to flit from tree to tree, then from lamppost to cornice to fire escape, leading Philip across Carbolic Avenue, down through Noontown to the Steppes, where she dove, midsong, straight under the front wheel of a truck. (We had no choice in this matter; nonexistent things—UFOs, ghosts—are only allowed fleeting passage through the actual.)
Philip, aghast, nauseated, was standing on the corner watching the wind-wakes of cars and buses suck zebra-striped, hamster-brown, and emerald feathers all down the block, when Esme, in almost an identical state of mind, came staggering toward him across Thirty-Seventh Avenue. She was so distraught that she did not even see him. He didn’t quite see her either, registering only that someone familiar was at his side.
He touched her shoulder and pointed to the mound of gore and feathers in the middle of the road. “Look.”
“What?” she said, absently, without even glancing where he was pointing.
Only once he realized that the remains of the hoopoe were indistinguishable from a squashed pigeon did Philip finally understand who was standing beside him.
Esme’s blue eyes had gone so pale they seemed chips of arctic ice. Her face too was blue, but that blue which is really the midpoint between purple and gray. She was wearing only an open-necked, tropical-flora-pattered shirt. No jean jacket. Her shoulders were shaking. Her jaw was clamped shut so firmly that her chin was corrugated.
“You okay?” Philip asked, but she didn’t hear him.
An hour later, they were sitting in a pub, each on a second pint of lager. The plate halfway between them was streaked by imperfectly mopped ketchup, and had three twig-black French fries resting on its rim. Esme wanted to tell Philip the story of her morning, but she was waiting for a sign that by making herself weak in front of him she would not be opening herself to more pain. The story she had to tell was of nothing but pain. What she did not know— and would, of course, never know—was that, grim as that story might have been, she was lucky to be able to tell it. She also didn’t know that the mere fact of her sitting across from Philip was an indication of how radically the parameters of her existence had been recalibrated.
Up until the very instant she first encountered Philip on Sullivan Footbridge, she and her whole family had been under the management of a Fatal Con committee—that is, a committee charged with the perpetration of “permanent and/or fatal consequences.” As a Mod Con committee—authorized to perpetrate only “modifiable consequences”—once we identified Esme as the perfect foil in the plot we were cooking up for Philip, we had had to petition Central Control for the right to take over her management. The substance of our petition was that the Fatal Con committee’s plan for Esme was boring and utterly predictable. To our considerable surprise, the Central Control review officer entirely agreed. And so Esme had been spared a fate far worse than the events about which she wanted to tell Philip. There was one drawback, however: While we now had considerable leeway regarding the luck, bad breaks, and fateful moments we might prepare for Esme, we could do nothing whatsoever to alter the predictable and grim destiny that the Fatal Con committee had arranged for her family. This meant, of course, that we would always have to contend with powerful downward pressures on her overall level of happiness—and this, too, was a fact she would never know.
“Esme,” said Philip. “I mean, maybe you don’t…you know, want to say anything, but…”
This was enough of a sign for Esme, and so she started to speak.
Shortly before dawn, she told Philip, she had been awoken by a scratching at her apartment door, and had found her sister, Saskia, lying in the dark hallway, looking as if she had been turned inside out. Where Saskia’s eye ought to have been, there was a creased purple mound the size of her fist. Her mouth was a pulp of split flesh and blood. Her teeth were jagged stumps and impossible absences. The whole front of her coat and her dress beneath were black with blood. But what most disturbed Esme was the expressionless flaccidity of Saskia’s face. Her hands lay on the floor like wax models of hands. Her chest neither rose nor fell.
“Saskia!” Esme cried. “Saskia!”
Nothing. Esme might as well have been shouting at a photograph of her sister. Only when she picked up one of those limp, cold hands, and then— in horror—let it drop did a low moan arise from Saskia’s chest.
Esme went back into the apartment, and returned with a bottle of vodka, a few droplets of which she poured into a corner of Saskia’s mouth. Another moan. A clicking of the tongue. After a few more drops, Saskia opened her one good eye. After a mouthful, she was able to sit up and, with Esme’s help, stagger to her bed.
As Esme gingerly dabbed her sister’s wounds with a warm washcloth, she asked questions that Saskia answered in gasps. Who had beaten her? “Boyfriend.” Why? “Angry.” Why was he angry? “Leave me alone!” Do you want to go to the hospital? “No.” Are you sure? “Yes. Sleep…. Want sleep.” The police, of course, were out of the question, but when Esme brought up their cousin, James, who knew people who could teach the boyfriend a lesson, Saskia’s response came as a ragged hiss: “No! Leave me alone! Sleep. Just let me sleep.”
After that, Saskia wouldn’t talk.
When, at last, she had fallen into slumber, Esme sat at the end of her bed, washcloth balled up in her hand, feeling nothing at all. The world had suddenly become a place where feelings served no purpose, or rather where the actions her feelings would inspire were impossible, senseless, terrifying. So she turned off.
The light around the window curtains went from ash-gray to smoke-yellow.
There was a sigh so small it might have come from a sparrow.
Esme’s mother was sitting up in her bed, her eyes wobbly with bewilderment.
“Oh, Mama,” said Esme, getting up from Saskia’s bed and walking over to her mother’s. “Oh Mama, Mama, Mama.” She put her head on her mother’s soft shoulder. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s huge, warm body and squeezed. “Oh, Mama, what are we going to do?”
Her mother remained silent, and was exactly as responsive to Esme’s hugs and caresses as an armchair.
Esme pulled back. A fixity had come into her mother’s gaze that made her look blind. Esme took her mother’s hands. “What are we going to do, Mama?”
The eyes twitched and met her gaze.
“What are you talking about?” her mother said.
“Have you seen Saskia?”
“Yes.” The older woman’s eyes shifted away from Esme’s, and it was a long time before she said, “My heart is breaking.”
“Oh, Mama!” Esme threw her arms around her mother’s shoulders, but the older woman pushed her away.
“No,” she said softly. And then, in a firmer voice: “We have to be strong.”
Esme lowered her hands into her own lap. “What are we going to do?”
“Stop saying that,” said her mother.
“We have to do something! We can’t just go on like this!”
“Stop, I said. There’s no point.”
“But look at what’s happened to Saskia!”
Her mother turned her gaze to her younger daughter’s swollen, bloody face, and then she turned back to Esme.
“You disgust me,” she said in a low voice.
Esme could not make sense of what she had heard. “What?” she said.
“Mama! Why are you saying that?”
“How dare you think you’re superior to your sister!” There was a cruelty in her mother’s expression that was halfway to joy. “You would have starved if it wasn’t for her. It’s because of you that this happened!”
Esme both knew and didn’t know what her mother was saying, and so she couldn’t speak.
The joylike cruelty intensified, becoming a sort of light: brilliant, piercing, cold.
Esme’s mother was shouting now. “Your sister did everything she could to help us. But what have you done? Tell me! Have you done anything? Have you? And what are you going to do now? Are you just going to let us starve! Do you think you’re so precious? Do you think you’re a saint because you don’t have the guts to do what your sister did?”
Esme didn’t respond. A white cloud had descended upon her, erasing most of the room. A ringing hum filled her ears. Her whole body shook, but she couldn’t stand. She couldn’t even move her hands.
Her mother opened her mouth as if to speak, but then a groaning wail rose from deep within her chest, and she swept her crutch across the top of her dresser, sending bottles, brushes, and a porcelain egg crashing to the floor.
That egg had been the solitary decorative object the family had brought from their old country. It was a bowl, really, the top half of which was a lid, filigreed in autumn-colored vines and leaves. As a little girl, Esme had imagined that the egg had been laid by a firebird. She would make a nest for the egg on a pillow, and then make another nest inside the egg, on which she would place a tiny plastic chicken that she had painted yellow and orange. When they had first come to this country, her mother had used the egg to store a garnet necklace and earrings. But her jewelry was long gone. When the egg shattered, it spilled only a paperclip, a rubber band, and a black marble onto the floorboards.
Esme’s mother nudged the largest shard with her crutch, then looked her daughter defiantly in the eye, as if to say, “There! See what I can do!”
When Esme still didn’t respond, her mother wedged her crutch against the wall, and—her face clenched in fury—sent her dresser toppling to the floor. She lunged out of the bed and careened about the room, knocking over chairs, the table, ripping pictures off the wall (prints of Jesus, the Virgin, a photograph of a roofless cathedral), heaving a stack of dishes from the sink, and sweeping an oil-filled skillet off the stove—wailing with every destructive act as if she were falling, again and again, from an immense height.
Esme sat mute and half blind, with ringing ears, still clutching the balled-up washcloth.
Saskia was speaking.
Saskia was sitting up in her bed, hissing between broken lips and teeth.
“You bitch!” she said. “You crazy bitch! You fucking crazy bitch!”
Blood dripped down her chin, onto her chest. Droplets sprayed from her lips to the bedclothes and floor.
“Is then I know I have to go,” Esme told Philip over to top of her pint. “If I stay, something terrible happen. Terrible, terrible. I have to go. I never go back. I die first.”
Philip made a bed for Esme on the couch in his living room, and she fell asleep immediately, even though it was only eight in the evening. In the middle of the night, he heard what he thought was the click of his front door being opened, and came out to find Esme in her underpants and tropical shirt, standing in front of his coffee table, a horrified expression on her face.
“You okay?” he said.
She didn’t answer until she had picked up her pants from the floor and put them on. He was only in his boxer shorts. “I am fine,” she said, but still looked so frightened he didn’t dare move.
“Yes.” She buckled her belt. “Maybe I am hungry.”
“Of course,” he said. “All you’ve had are French fries.”
Philip crossed his living room gingerly, as if Esme were a wild animal that had mysteriously appeared in his apartment. He turned on the light in his closet-sized kitchen, and opened the refrigerator, cupboards, and drawers. “Help yourself to anything,” he said. “Would you like some fruit? Cereal? Should I make you some eggs?”
“No. Is all right.”
She no longer seemed frightened, but her expression was sullen, wary.
“Okay,” he said, backing a half step out of the room. “Just ask if you need anything.”
She glanced in the direction of his boxer shorts, then averted her eyes. In a toneless voice, she said, “Thank you.”
Philip returned to his bedroom but did not fall back asleep for more than an hour—until he had heard the zip of her pants, followed by the squeak of the couch springs and the muttery flutter of the covers.
He would never figure out what that locklike click had been (her belt buckle striking his wooden coffee table as she groped in the dark for her pants), but when he woke in the morning she was still asleep, her lips pressed against the pillow, partly open, glossy with saliva, her eyes closed as delicately as one snowflake resting upon another.
For a long time he stood just watching her—his life no longer making sense to him, in ways that were equal parts wonderful and unsettling.
She was still asleep when he was ready for work. He left her a note on the coffee table, giving her his cell phone number, and telling her when he would be home. He surveyed his apartment as he stood in the doorway. The only possessions he would hate to have stolen were his laptop and iPod, and these were both in his briefcase. He pulled the door shut and descended the stairs.
She didn’t call. When he phoned around ten, she didn’t answer. He decided to go back home during lunch, and shopped along the way as an excuse. Entering the apartment, he found her bolt-upright on the couch, watching him as if she were only waiting for him to turn his back so she could jump him.
The apartment smelled of chlorine.
He went into the kitchen to unpack the groceries, and found his breakfast dishes gleaming in the drainer. The sinks, countertops, and floor were cleaner than they had ever been during the five years he had lived in the apartment. The same was true of the bathroom. He also found that his bed had been made with new sheets, and that the living room had been straightened out, dusted, and swept.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Is nothing,” she answered, seeming vaguely annoyed.
When it was time for him to head back to work, he told her, “I’m sorry that I don’t have a spare key. If you need to go out, I’ll be back at six and can let you in.”
“That okay. I am happy here.” She smiled, but without looking at him, as if her happiness embarrassed her.
That night, he made her a Greek-style chicken stew, with lemon, feta, and spinach. They shared a bottle of wine, and he asked her a little about her country, and about what she thought of this one (“Is okay. Maybe people not so friendly.”).
About halfway through the meal, she started to eat like a condemned prisoner again. “You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I don’t want anything from you. I just want you to have somewhere to stay until you can find your own place.”
She looked at him as if she didn’t believe a word. “I am not worry.”
The following night they ordered in pizza and ate it side by side on the couch, watching television. They hardly spoke, but when they did, he found that he had come to like the complexity of her vowels and the handsaw rhythms of her speech. Her eyes were the blue of a winter sky at dusk.
Bedtime. The TV a black rectangle.
He helped her spread her blankets and sheets.
That done, he stood at her side in front of the couch. Her head was bent and turned slightly away, as if she were examining the pillow she had just placed against the couch arm.
She had put up her hair while watching TV, keeping it in place with a balsa wood chopstick she had found in his drawer. The fine hairs at the base of her neck made a golden fog. Her ears were swirls of pink with modest, plump lobes. Her cheeks were faintly freckled, lightly downed, and seemed as if they would be as soft to the touch as flowing air.
Entirely without intending to, he drew the backs of his index and middle fingers lightly across her cheek. But instead of lurching away, she pressed into his touch with a just-audible moan. Then she was looking into his eyes, and an instant later he was kissing her. Not long afterward they walked, together, into his room.
When he woke in the morning, he could hear her in the kitchen singing softly in her own language. When he stepped out of the bathroom, she met him at the door with a mug of steaming coffee.
The following morning, he woke to find her still asleep, her pelvis against his belly, his lips beside her cheek. He lay still, listening to the slow susurrus of her sleepy breathing, feeling the warmth of her body, remembering how she had pulled him deeper into her as she reached her orgasm, and how she had whimpered into his ear.
That night they went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant, and when they returned home, before they had made love, before they had even begun to kiss, she said, “I never know man like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You good man. I never know good man like you.”
Some hours later, he reached into the drawer of his bedside table. “Hold out your hand,” he said.
“Why?” Her smile alternated between uneasiness and delight.
“Just do it.”
She held out her hand, fingers cupped, and he covered her palm with his own.
When he drew his hand away, the brass ring lay at the center of her palm. “There,” he said, folding her fingers over the ring. “For your love.”
We are professionals, so we didn’t pop any champagne corks until the lab work came back confirming that Philip’s and Esme’s oxytocin, dopamine, and adrenaline levels were sufficiently elevated to qualify them, according to the Schacter-McPhee Eroto-Amorosity Quotient, as “in love.” Esme’s 36.733 quotient actually placed her love in the “passionate” category, while Philip’s 27.008 only earned him a solid “monogamistic” ranking.
None of us were surprised by these results. Over the month that Philip and Esme had been living together, they had engaged in all the usual behaviors: bashful grins across the breakfast table; shower lovemaking; randomly occurring gasps, sighs, and moans. And, of course, we had tested them both: reversing street signs so that Esme kept turning left instead of right, and thus arrived forty-five minutes late at the restaurant where Philip was waiting; bombarding Philip with subliminal messages that caused him to constantly call Esme “Jenny,” the name of his college girlfriend. But nothing we did inspired more than fleeting incidences of disconcertion. Philip and Esme were both clearly happier than they had ever been. He said as much. She had an aversion to acknowledging the good in her life, but the smile with which she dismissed his proclamation made her true feelings obvious.
The night we got the SMEAQ results, we convened at an Asian fusion restaurant to celebrate, and, indeed, did share several bottles of champagne. The truth is, however, that our celebration was more ritualistic than heartfelt. Our labors on this project had succeeded well beyond any reasonable expectation, and we all knew that our next assignment—an ordinary suburban adultery case: soccer mom, soccer coach; quick kiss behind a dugout, followed by years of shame—was not likely to be remotely as rewarding.
We were well into our fourth bottle, and all beginning to show the effects, when Gentian leaned back in his seat, crossed his arms, and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said ruefully.
Everyone stopped talking and turned his way.
“The more I think about it,” he continued, “the more I think we weren’t so successful after all. Or perhaps we were too successful. I mean, haven’t we just wound up on a bunch of clichés—love conquers all, the reward of the virtuous, happily ever after? Doesn’t that all seem woefully beneath us?”
Flax nodded, and was about to speak when I cut him off.
“I beg to differ,” I said. “This relationship could hardly be more unstable. Esme is entirely dependent on Philip—not just emotionally, but for immigration, and for the sake of her mother and sister. She’s keeping all that to herself, of course, but that’s what she has to be thinking; we all know how her mind works. Whereas Philip has the luxury of believing in the purity of their love—which is to say he hardly needs her at all. And on top of that, they don’t even speak the same language! So their love is still—what? Sixty, seventy percent fantasy? Absolutely anything could happen. This situation is just exploding with potential.”
“So what are you suggesting?” Gentian asked with a mischievous squint.
“What else?” I said. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to teach Philip a lesson on the limits of his own virtue?”
“You mean,” Photius asked, “that we introduce him to that girl in public relations after all?”
That girl—Margaret was her name—was Philip’s spiritual doppelgänger: a failed musician, happiest as a sensitive sufferer among sensitive sufferers, possessed of a sexual history characterized exclusively by disappointment. She had been scheduled to be the great love of Philip’s life before we decided to make things interesting by bringing him face to face with Esme on the Sullivan Footbridge.
“As it happens,” Gentian said, speaking slowly, savoring the implications of his words, “she is on the guest list for the Imaginary Instruments opening.”
An excited murmur rose all around the table.
I called for a resolution. It passed unanimously on the first vote.
Stephen O’Connor is the author of two collections of short fiction, Here Comes Another Lesson and Rescue.
Listen to Stephen O’Connor and editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker discuss “Con” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.