by Leonard Kress
She meets me at the party. I’ve only been here a few minutes when she arrives, discombobulated after getting off the subway and wandering lost along the grimy, bloodstained sidewalks of the Meatpacking District. And just like I told her - look for a low-slung building with no markings, just a truck-sized convoluted garage door painted orange. When she finally enters the space and finds me pouring myself a paper cup of red wine, she glowers.
“How the fuck was I supposed to find this place?”
This place is actually a furnished space within a humongous meat freezer so large it doesn’t feel the least bit claustrophobic. Someone important lives there - someone along with her partner, but I’m not sure I would recognize either of them. It’s homy, so it doesn’t feel haunted by the ghosts of slaughtered animals once hooked in cramped rows, pooled blood frozen on the concrete floor. It’s lushly furnished. Flowers and sculpted trees scattered throughout. I wonder how they could survive without the sunlight. I don’t notice any special lighting, though I’m not sure I would recognize it if it was here. Everyone exudes a healthy glow - easily mistaken for smugness. “Glad you found the place,” I say, trying to ignore her annoyance. I’m here at the invitation of a friend and don’t know anyone, except the friend who hasn’t arrived yet. Naomi claims that she’s sure she knows several people here, though when I ask her to point them out, she shrugs her shoulders. Since this is important to me, I ask again. This time she doesn’t bother to shrug. I point to the stuffed backpack she’s removing while scanning the room for a safe corner to stow it for a few hours. Spotting a place, she jolts around and heads over with awkward movements, as though her body would get to its intended destination before she realizes she has already arrived there. This always seems to baffle her, the need to catch up to herself.
“What’s that about,” I ask.
“Just a change of clothes,” she says, “Nothing special.”
To me she already looks spectacular, dressed-up or dressed up enough for this crowd. No makeup except for a tiny bit of kohl around the eyes, hair pulled back and secured with a scrunchie, gray thrift-shop sweater and long skirt. The scrunchie seems an important detail because Naomi sported the first one I ever saw a few years back—wearing it on her wrist, constricting it enough to leave a mark when she tugged it off and urged her hair into it. I also remember a time when her hair was secured by two of them, and she vigorously grabbed my forearm and stretched it over my palm, letting it snap gently into place. The skirt hem is so long I have to guess that she’s wearing something like steel-toed work boots. Her usual outfit - which always drives me wild. More so, for example, than the backless leotard and frizzed-out hair of one of the guests popping grapes into her mouth.
Naomi had agreed to meet me here: spend an hour or two devouring plates of free food, while we stand in some corner or private place, pretending to peruse the titles on one of the many bookshelves while observing the crowd. The crowd which is quite sparse at the moment and somewhat humdrum. Afterwards, I’ll drive her to her Eastside apartment, exchange pleasantries about how we always let too much time pass before meeting up, about how extraordinary it was last week, the way we ran into each other, after losing contact for almost two years. No one believes me - and I sometimes don’t believe it myself - when I explain how I boarded the crowded, standing-room-only Broadway line. I was grasping the strap, swaying in time to the halts and jerks of the subway car, almost choreographically aligned with those surrounding me. Trying to keep from knocking into strangers, worried that I’d be late for my seminar. I hadn’t looked down, I hadn’t looked in any direction for that matter, my usual unpoliced stare turned inward - when there she was! Seated right in front of me, below me, her head bobbing as she tried to read the book on her lap. We noticed each other at the exact same moment - what we interpreted as magical synchronicity. We hugged. Others, all around us broke into silent, stifled cheers, as if they, too, were participating in our reunion. As if they were on the edge of their seats and I muttered some sort of Bogartian quip, “ Of all the subway cars in all the routes in the city, she walks into mine.”, All got the inferred reference. In all honesty, though, despite the warm hug and baffled small talk, we went our separate ways a few stops later. Leaving me more confused than ever, having forgotten until this party how much she’s able to activate Ingrid Bergman’s coy, flickering smile.
The party turns out to be a dud, so we leave. This is okay with me, since I’m facing a two-hour drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, transporting myself home to my wife and baby son in Philadelphia. Part of the deal with my coming to grad school in New York was my promise - always fulfilled - to come back every night. Besides, I also had my job at the restaurant two nights a week - necessary to help out with the rent and textbooks for the two seminars I’m taking. Tonight was meant to be a work night, but I called in sick so I could attend the party. It somehow seemed like a good thing to do - making connections, meeting people, putting myself out there (my wife’s words). Actually, I called with the excuse of a sick infant, which was partially true, since he was having a terrible time teething and was often up all night. So here I was, not making any connections, not meeting anyone, definitely not putting myself out there, but excited to spend time with Naomi. Was it possible that we hadn’t spent more than fifteen minutes together in the past five years? Of course, she was out in the Midwest pursuing her own connections, people—and definitely, knowing Naomi, really putting herself out there. I was hoping to find out if she’d been successful or not; that’s why I suggested we meet at the party. I was completely in the dark.
To make matters more confusing, she refuses to get out of my car when I pull over to double park in front of her building. She sits there, still, silent and staring out the window for a minute. She doesn’t unbuckle her seatbelt, doesn’t reach over to the back seat to grab her backpack. I think she’s on the verge of making some sort of pronouncement, though I can’t imagine what. I have no reason to suspect it has anything to do with me, but I still feel a tightening in my chest and have to take a deep breath to keep from feeling dizzy. The thought does occur to me that maybe she’s going to apologize for missing my wedding. Taking that further for the next few seconds, I wonder if she’s planning to tell me that it was just too painful for her to attend, because of how she felt. Instead of continuing on this conveyor belt, I stop myself right there. This is probably not true, and even if it is, what am I supposed to do with this revelation? Then, before I get stuck in this muck of speculation, Naomi announces: “I want to go with you to Philadelphia. I want you to take me there.”
“What are you talking about?” I say.
“It shouldn’t be any trouble. We can catch up on things on the way down. I could even help with the driving. There’s someone I need to see.”
“So will you need a place to stay?”, I ask, trying hard to figure out where this is going.
“You can drop me off at my friend’s house - I’ll direct you there.”
The drive lasts about two hours. Little or no traffic, late enough so there are few commuters, though I’m sure the train I usually take is packed. Not even that many trucks are threatening to drive right through my car since I’m taking it easy. Cruising at the speed limit or sometimes just below. Because I want to stretch out the drive, making it last as long as possible without seeming like a slowdown. Naomi, I’m sure, isn’t aware of any speed differential and leans back in her seat, stretching out her legs to rest on the dashboard, shoes off, uncomfortable enough from the seat belt digging into her extended thighs to keep awake. Otherwise, I’m sure she would have napped. Finally, about to burst, I ask her where she wants to be dropped off.
“It’s just a little past your place,” she says, “he’s got a condo a block and a half from the river. Two blocks from the I-95 onramp, or is that the off ramp?” Her specificity throws me off, so instead of asking who “he” is, I try to picture the neighborhood. After all, I live only five blocks from the river, but there isn’t a single condo in my area, so she must mean a much fancier section of the city, which is actually more than just a little past my place. More like a mile. An entirely different realm. “His name’s Ed, in case you were wondering,” she says. I’m about to grill her for more information, but she quickly unlatches her seatbelt and at the same time swivels around, keeping her legs nearly extended. Her movement is worthy of a pommel horse dismount, with the added (or subtracted) point or penalty for knocking my glasses off with her toes. So, while I poke around the floor with one arm, trying to keep in my lane with the other, she settles into the back seat, leaning back only after adjusting the rear-view mirror to get a better view of her own face. Owing to the disruption, the only thing I hear is something about corporate real estate. Or is it estate planning? Something about a private plane. It doesn’t really matter.
I locate my glasses, grip them with my pinky, and fit them back on my face. Only one car honks maniacally as I drift into his lane. Or maybe he’s simply trumpeting his enthusiasm over seeing Naomi’s butt flush against the window as she arches her back and vaults into the back. I can’t tell what she’s doing back there, though I hear the sound of a zipper and the rustling of clothing. To be honest, I’m reluctant to turn around just for a second. I’m afraid of how I might continue driving on the turnpike if she’s sitting there in her underwear. Or even naked. How hard it would be to return attention to the highway. And why would she do that - well, it wouldn’t have been an entirely new feat for her. Over the years she has spontaneously - or would deliberately capture the spirit more precisely - done this. One time at the folk festival, when rain poured from the sky, she was frolicking with a bunch of others and when their clothing (minimal to begin with) became soaked and water-logged, she simply stepped out of hers, twirling in the downpour. Almost like a lawn sprinkler with rivulets of water flicking off as she spun. Another time, during a camping trip, a group of us, none coupled, settled down on a series of grand boulders surrounding a mountain lake. While the rest of us sat there watching, she slowly stepped into the shallow water, tugging up her skirt as the depth increased. When she reached a place where she could no longer gather it, she dropped down under the water and somehow, in a move that seemed impossible, let the skirt settle on the surface. Like a giant lily pad. Then she emerged a few feet away, naked, gazing into the distance. The rest of us gazing at her as if she were an apparition.
“I’m just going to change my outfit”, Naomi says, “I want to look nice.”
“For Ed? I ask. Just what are you planning to do?”
“Seduction,” she says, clipped and forthright and brusque. I’m not sure if she’s serious or joking, or something in-between.
“Really,” I say. “No subtlety here. But seriously, what’s really going on?” It’s getting late, after all, we hadn’t left the meat locker party until midnight, and then dilly-dallying around the city for another half hour. And now, approaching the toll booth near the bottom of New Jersey, it’s already 3 a.m. I can’t imagine dropping her off at Ed’s and then the two of them going out on the town. This is, after all, Philadelphia. I’m sure there are such things as after-hours clubs and after-hours scenes, but that world has always remained completely foreign to me. Right now, my son is probably on his third Herculean feeding of the night—so intense that he’s in bed with my wife. Right by her side, nursing in his own gurgling, squirmy way, with lots of room for both of them to spread out, since I’m not there to take up space. Yet, at this moment, I’m happier being in the car with Naomi in the back, zipping up or buttoning or snapping together whatever clothes have been stuffed into her backpack.
“Almost ready,” she announces, her voice muffled as though speaking through fabric, pulling some article of clothing over her head. I’m not completely sure that Naomi isn’t telling the truth, though truth about what, I’m not sure. It seems so improbable that she’d be visiting someone so late at night in such a glamorous state. At least that’s how I imagine the final presentation when revealed. I think it’s less a case of disbelieving her and more a case of desperate hoping that this turns out to be some elaborate ploy to get me to spend the night with her. I realize that I was basing this wish on nothing, nada, thin air, no air. And as I try to make out in the re-adjusted rear view what she’s transforming into, I think of a multitude of excuses I could prepare for my wife of why I never made it home. She did once say that she’d understand that I might be too exhausted from the grad school trek to travel. She asked if I knew anyone in the city I might stay with and I told her no, that was not likely. Then my wife unexpectedly, prophetically, curiously, brought up Naomi.
“What about that woman you used to go out with, you know, the one we ran into downtown who gave you such a huge and lingering hug? I can’t recall her name,” she said.
“I’m not sure who you’re talking about,” I said, though, of course I did.
“Doesn’t she live somewhere up on the West Side or East Side.”
I was about to give a non-answer - knowing that my wife always knew more than she let on and probably had a whole bunch more questions, each one more focused than the next. Luckily, the baby started crying and my wife dropped the subject and began a frantic search for a private spot in the nearby park where she could free her breast and begin nursing. Only slurping and guzzling and looks of pure exhausted bliss on both their faces. This memory seems to pile on top of the others, and I’m unable to take my thoughts on any further excursion beyond the realization that this is something I’ve always wanted: wholeheartedly, unquestionably. I’m back in that subway moment, not as it actually played out (petered out) but how it simply dissolved into meaninglessness. My mind has been stormed by the romantic longings of the surrounding passengers.
“So where are we really going?”, I ask. She’s almost standing straight up in the seat. If my car had a sunroof, her head would be sticking up through it, her hair flapping in the crosswind. She’d be screaming out some silly oldies song. A scene worthy of any rom com, the girl, for once, liberated and unrestrained, free to love. Alas, no hole in my car’s roof, so her head is bent and, as best as I can tell, she’s wiggling her way into stockings or skin-tight jeans.
“I told you. Ed’s.” - Then, her donning complete, she settles back in her seat, tugging and fluffing her hair. Makeup already applied, piled on thick. She sighs and for a few seconds leans back in the seat. I re-adjust the rearview so I can see her.
“You know,” she says, “this is the night. I’m going to make sure that Ed knocks me up.”
“Huh,” I say. Then, wanting to clarify, “you mean get you pregnant.”
“You got it,” Naomi says, as though it’s the obvious and expected outcome. “It’s gonna happen. And now, just the finishing touches.” She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a small canister of hairspray, holding it up like a pistol, aiming it at her own skull. Instantly, a burgeoning, sweet-scented cloud fills the cabin. For more than a few seconds both of us - enveloped in the perfumy mist - cough and choke.
About the author:
Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. CraniotomySestinas appeared in 2021. He lives in Blackwood, NJ and teaches at Temple University.