He was handsome.
Not that I was really checking anyone out, or that I even looked at guys in that way anymore—married going on ten years now, and
Neil, my youngest, my stepson actually, just off to college. I glanced away, pretending I hadn’t even noticed him. Especially in a bar by myself, no matter how stylish this one was. But in truth I guess I had.
Noticed him. Just a little. Out of the corner of my eye . . .
Longish black hair and kind of dark, smoky eyes. A white V-neck T-shirt under a stylish blazer. Late thirties maybe, around my age, but seemed younger. I would’ve chalked him up as being just a shade too cool—too cool for my type anyway—if it wasn’t that something about him just seemed, I don’t know . . . natural. He sat down a few seats from me at the bar and ordered a Belvedere on the rocks, never looking my way. His watch was a rose-gold chronometer and looked expensive. When he finally did turn my way, shifting his stool to listen to the jazz pianist, his smile was pleasant, not too forward, just enough to acknowledge that there were three empty seats between us, and seemed to say nothing more than How are you tonight? Actually the guy was pretty damn hot!
Truth was, it had been years since I’d been at a bar by myself at night, other than maybe waiting for a girlfriend to come back from the ladies’ room as part of a gals’ night out. And the only reason I even happened to be here was that I’d been in the city all day at this self-publishing seminar, a day after Dave and I had about the biggest fight of our married lives. Which had started out as nothing, of course, as these things usually did: whether or not you had to salt the steaks so heavily—twice, in fact—before putting them on the grill—he having read about it in Food & Wine magazine or something—which somehow managed to morph into how I felt he was always spoiling the kids, who were from Dave’s first marriage:
Amy, who was in Barcelona on her junior year abroad, and Neil, who had taken his car with him as a freshman up at Bates. Which
was actually all just a kind of code, I now realized, for some issues I had with his ex-wife, Joanie. How I felt she was always belittling me; always putting out there that she was the kids’ mother, even though I’d pretty much raised them since they were in grade school, and how I always felt Dave never fully supported me on this.
“She is their mother!” Dave said, pushing away from the table. “Maybe you should just butt out on this, Wendy. Maybe you just
Then we both said some things I’m sure we regretted.
The rest of the night we barely exchanged a word—Dave shutting himself in the TV room with a hockey game, and me hiding out
in the bedroom with my book. In the morning he was in his car at the crack of dawn, and I had my seminar in New York. We hadn’t
spoken a word all day, which was rare, so I asked my buddy Pam to meet me for a drink and maybe something to eat, just to talk it all through before heading home.
Home was about the last place I wanted to be right now. And here it was, ten after seven, and Pam was texting me that she
was running twenty min late: the usual kid crisis—meaning Steve, her hedge-fund-honcho husband, still hadn’t left the office as promised, and her nanny was with April at dance practice . . .
And me, at the Hotel Kitano bar, a couple of blocks from Grand Central. Taking in the last, relaxing sips of a Patrón Gold
margarita—another thing I rarely did!—one eye on the TV screen above me, which had a muted baseball game or something on, the other doing its best to avoid the eye of Mr. Cutie at the end of the bar. Maybe not looking my 100 percent, knockout best—I mean,
it was just a self-publishing seminar and all—but still not exactly half-bad in an orange cashmere sweater, a black leather skirt, my Prada boots, and my wavy, dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. Looking decently toned from the hot-yoga classes I’d been taking, texting back to Pam with a mischievous smile: Better hurry. V. sexy guy @ bar and think he’s abt to make contact. *grin* And giggling inside when she wrote me back: Hands off, hon! Ordered him esp for me!
Then better get your ass here pronto 🙂 I texted back. “Yanks or Red Sox?” I heard someone say.
“Sorry?” I looked up and it was you know who, who definitely had to be Bradley Cooper’s dreamy first cousin or something. Or at
least that’s what the sudden acceleration in my heart rate was telling me.
“Yanks or Red Sox? I see you’re keeping tabs on the game.”
“Oh. Yanks, of course,” I said, a glance to the screen. “Born and bred. South Shore.”
“Sox.” He shrugged apologetically. “South Boston. Okay, Brookline,” he said with a smile, “if you force it out of me.”
I smiled back. He was pretty cute. “Actually I wasn’t even watching. Just waiting for a friend.” I figured I might as well cut this off now. No point in leading him on.
“No worries.” He smiled politely. Like he’s even interested, right? “Who happens to be twenty minutes late!” I blurted, thinking I might have sounded just a bit harsh a moment ago.
“Well, traffic’s nuts out there tonight. Someone must be in town. Is he coming in from anywhere?”
“Yeah.” I laughed. “Park and Sixty-Third!” Then I heard myself add, not sure exactly why, “And it’s a she. Old college friend. Girls’ night out.”
He lifted his drink to me, and his dark eyes smiled gently. “Well, here’s to gridlock, then.”
Mr. Cutie and I shifted around and listened to the pianist. The bar was apparently known for its jazz. It was like the famous lounge at the Carlyle, only in midtown, which was why Pam had chosen it— close to both her place and Grand Central, for me to catch my train. “She’s actually pretty good!” I said, suddenly not minding the thought of Pam stuck in a cab somewhere, at least for a while. Not to mention forgetting my husband, who, for a moment, was a million miles away.
“Donna St. James. She’s one of the best. She used to sing with George Benson and the Marsalis brothers.”
“Oh,” I said. Everyone in the lounge seemed to be clued in to this. “It’s why I stay here when I’m in town. Some of the top names in the business just drop in unannounced. Last time I was here, Sarah Jewel got up and sang.”
“She used to record with Basie back in the day.” He pointed to a stylishly dressed black woman and an older white man at one of the round tables. “That’s Rosie Miller. She used to record with Miles Davis. Maybe she’ll get up later.”
“You’re in the business?” I asked. I mean, he did kind of look the part.
“No. Play a little though. Just for fun. My dad was actually an arranger back in the seventies and eighties. He . . . anyway, I don’t want to bore you with all that,” he said, shrugging and stirring his drink.
I took a sip of mine and caught his gaze. “You’re not boring me at all.”
A couple came in and went to take the two seats that were in between us, so Mr. Cutie picked up his drink and slid deftly around
them, and asked, motioning to the seat next to me, “Do you mind?”
Truth was, I didn’t. I was actually kind of enjoying it. And I did have a rescue plan, if necessary. I checked the time: 7:25. Wherever the hell Pam was!
“So this friend of yours,” he asked with a coy half smile, “is she real or imaginary? Because if she’s imaginary, not to worry. I have several imaginary friends of my own back in Boston. We could set them up.”
“Oh, that would be nice.” I laughed. “But I’m afraid she’s quite real. At least she was this summer. She and her husband were in Spain with me and my . . .”
I was about to say my husband, of course, but something held me back. Though by this time I assumed he had taken note of the ring
on my finger. Still, I couldn’t deny this was fun, sitting there with an attractive man who was paying me a little attention, still reeling from my argument with Dave.
Then he said, “I suspect there’s probably an imaginary husband back at home as well . . .”
“Right now”—I rolled my eyes and replied in a tone that was just a little digging—“I’m kind of wishing he was imaginary!” Then
I shook my head. “That wasn’t nice. Tequila talking. We just had a little row last night. Subject for tonight with friend.”
“Ah. Sorry to hear. Just a newlywed spat, I’m sure,” he said, teasing. This time I was sure he was flirting.
“Yeah, right.” I chortled at the flattery. “Going on ten years.”
“Wow!” His eyes brightened in a way that I could only call admiring. “Well, I hope it’s okay if I say you surely don’t look it! I’m Curtis, by the way.”
I hesitated, thinking maybe I’d let things advance just a bit too far. Though I had to admit I wasn’t exactly minding it. And maybe in a way I was saying to my husband, So see, David, there are consequences to being a big, fat jerk!
“Wendy,” I said back. We shook hands. “But it sure would be nice to know where the hell Pam is. She was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.” I checked the time on my phone.
“Would it be all right if I order up another of whatever you’re drinking?” He raised his palms defensively. “Purely for the imaginary friend, of course . . .”
“Of course,” I said, playing along. “But no. One more of these and I’ll be up at that piano myself! And trust me, I wasn’t playing with anyone in the eighties . . . Anyway”—I shrugged, deadpan— “she only drinks imaginary vodka.”
Curtis grinned. “I’m acquainted with the bartender. Let me see what I can do.”
My iPhone vibrated. Pam, I was sure, announcing she was pulling up to the hotel now and for me to get a dirty martini going for
her. But instead it read: Wend, I’m so sorry. Just can’t make it tonite. What can I say . . . ? I know u need to talk. Tomorrow work? Tomorrow? Tomorrow didn’t work. I was here. Now. And she was right, I did need to talk. And the last place I wanted to be right now was home. Will call, I wrote back, a little annoyed. I put down the phone. My eyes inevitably fell on Curtis’s. I’d already missed the 7:39.
“Sure, why don’t we do just that?” I nodded about that drink. I’m not sure exactly what made me stay.
Maybe I was still feeling vulnerable from my fight with Dave. Or even a little annoyed at Pam, who had a habit of bagging out when I needed her most. I suppose you could toss in just a bit of undeniable interest in the present company.
Whatever it was, I did.
Knowing Dave was out for the night on business and that it was all just harmless anyway helped as well. And that there was a train every half hour. I could leave anytime I wanted.
We chatted some more, and Curtis said he was a freelance journalist here in town on a story. And I chuckled and told him that I was kind of in the same game too. That I’d actually worked for the Nassau County police in my twenties before going to law school for a year—having signed up after 9/11, after my brother, a NYPD cop himself, was killed—though I was forced to resign after a twelveyear-old boy was killed in a wrongful-death judgment. And that I’d written this novel about my experience, which was actually why I’d been in the city today at a self-publishing conference. That I’d been having a tough time getting it looked at by anyone, and that it likely wasn’t very good anyway.
“Care to read it?” I asked. I tapped the tote bag from my publishing conference. “Been lugging it around all day.”
“I would,” Curtis said, “but I’m afraid it’s not exactly my field.”
“Just joking,” I said. “So what is your field?”
He shrugged. “I’m a bit more into current events.”
I was about to follow up on that when the pianist finished her set. The crowded room gave her a warm round of applause. She got
up and came over to the end of the bar, ordered a Perrier, and to my surprise, when it arrived, lifted it toward Curtis. “All warmed up, sugar.”
Curtis stood up. I looked at him wide-eyed. He shot me a slightly apologetic grin. “I did mention that I played . . .”
“You said a bit, for fun,” I replied.
“Well, you’ll be the judge. Look, I know you have a train to
catch, and I don’t know if you’ll be around when I’m done”—he put
out his hand—“but it was fun to chat with you, if you have to leave.”
“I probably should,” I said, glancing at the time. “It was nice to talk to you as well.”
“And best of luck,” he said, pointing as he backed away, “with that imaginary friend of yours.”
“Right! I’ll be sure to tell her!” I laughed.
He sat down at the piano, and I swiveled around, figuring I’d stick around a couple of minutes to hear how he played. But from the opening chords that rose magically from his fingers, just warming up, it was clear it was me he was playing when he coyly said he only played “a little.”
I was dumbstruck, completely wowed. The guy was a ten! He wasn’t just a dream to look at, and charming too—he played like he was totally at one with the instrument. He had the ease and polish of someone who clearly had been doing this from an early age.
His fingers danced across the keyboard and the sounds rose as if on a cloud, then drifted back to earth as something beautiful. It had been a long time since goose bumps went down my arms over a guy.
Donna St. James leaned over. “You ever hear him before, honey?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“His father arranged a bunch of us back in the day. Sit back. You’re in for a treat.”
The first thing he played was this sumptuous, bluesy rendition of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and the handful of
customers who were paying their checks, preparing to leave, started listening. Even the bartender was listening. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Whatever my definition of sexy had been an hour ago, forget it—he was definitely rewriting it for me now.
I didn’t leave.
I just sat there, slowly nursing my margarita, growing more and more intoxicated, but not by the drink. By the time he segued into a sultry version of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” it was as if his soul had risen from that keyboard and knotted itself with mine.
Our eyes came together a couple of times, my smile communicating, Okay, so I’m impressed . . . The twinkle in his eye simply saying he was happy I was still there.
By the time he finished up with Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” goose bumps were dancing up and down my arms with the
rise and fall of his fingers along the keys. With a couple of margaritas in me—and fifteen years from the last time anyone looked at me quite that way—the little, cautioning voice that only a few minutes back was going, Wendy, this is crazy, you don’t do this kind of thing, had gone completely silent.
And when our eyes seemed to touch after his final note and didn’t separate, not for a while, I knew, sure as I knew my own name, that I was about to do something I could never have imagined when I walked into the place an hour before. Something I’d never, ever done before.