All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

4 June 2014

MANHATTAN IN THREE ACTS


“That’s not what you feel”, he said.

They were separated by a narrow slice of long beige desk, and she could almost touch his hand. He was that close.

“Yeah?” she said. “And what do I feel?”

“I will tell you. I will tell you exactly what you feel”.

Nothing was happening around them, but the place fizzed with low voices and second-hand stories they could not make out. The desk had sticky patches of beer and whisky, and she had to be careful placing her elbows.

It started with him taking out a wrapped object from under the desk and nudging it close to her. She unwrapped the wrinkled paper and saw a mug with her name on it. The mug looked familiar, and she remembered that old Jewish dinner where she felt sick from all the food and said something nasty about uncle Ezra. It took her some time to realise this was her birthday party, and the mug was his present. Back then, he was poor, shared an unfurnished apartment down Ninth street, and had to use plain white wrapping paper that was most likely torn out from one of his precious exercise-books. Uncle Ezra made the crude remark, and she made a scene. It all came flooding back – now, a million years later.

“I loved that mug”, she said. “But I lost it... I haven’t seen it in years.”

He knew she felt it now and got to the next part. He put a bottle of red wine on the desk and looked at her. The wine was redder than his corduroy jacket, and there was no need in reading the label. “Las Gravas”, she whispered, and he whispered it back. The way he articulated that, the way his lips vibrated with the sound, it still gave her shivers and made her want to touch his hair. Untousle it, comb it, make it straight. But there was no need, his haircut was boring and perfect. Next he poured a little wine into her mug, making that nourishing splashing sound that brought on the strongest thirst. His movements were confident, strikingly sober – he knew what he was doing.

“Spanish wine”. Back then he thought she looked Spanish. Maybe her father was right and he was indeed a pervert – falling as he did for a Spanish-looking, Jewish girl two years older than him.

She took the mug in her hands, cozily, as if this was hot chocolate and the place was freezing. Drinking wine from the tea mug he gave her, that’s what they did when he sneaked into her backyard with a bottle of Las Gravas he had stolen from his dad’s bar. He refused to drink rough, so they shared the mug and talked all night about things that wouldn’t make sense in the morning.

 “It’s too warm here”, she said. “Say something”.

“Well”, he said, fully prepared. “They make this wine in Jumilla, which is extremely underrated as far as Spanish wine regions go…”.

She didn’t care. She didn’t want to know the dull details and waved her hand like she would after a few drinks and a dozen childhood memories. She gave in to the taste. The wine was smoky, seductive, and it flame-licked the insides of her head like a beautiful bullet. At around 6 a.m. they lay on the grass and brushed away invisible insects. He began talking about science and his work at the University and the fact that Mr. Wolfenstein didn’t understand singularity. She loved his words without understanding the language. But Jesus the nights in late October were nippy and in the morning she woke up with a sore throat. And then the very last entry in her diary, something girlish and overdramatic about never loving him that much again. There was one tear working its way across her cheek, and she quickly finished off the wine.

She looked up. His shorter hair, his new eyes – the quantum physics in her backyard, with his nondescript theories and his fancy ideas, was happening a few centuries ago. His hands were better though, they had vibrancy and they could grab things. Drop them, shake them, not just touch.

The clock was pushing midnight, and the noise was getting heavier. Manhattan could no longer contain itself within the limits of the city streets – it had to break in through each and every door with its vulgar people and their vulgar stories. To intercept them, or at least to delay them by another moment or two, he took out an untouched pack of Dunhill Switch. This was the last part, she could tell it already. She took one cigarette and he lit it for her.

“Hunter Thompson and John Lennon loved those”.

Again, this was beside the point, he was now trying to distract her, get her off the point. And the point was of course the day the cherry gum didn’t work and her mother smelled tobacco on her breath. What followed was one humiliating slap on the face amid the mutual screams and accusations. But there was more to come. She was locked in her room for three summer days straight, with no phone calls and, at that particular time in the 20th century, no Internet. On the second day he tied his letter to a gravel stone and threw it into her open window. He missed and never bothered to climb over the hedge and do it right. She never forgave him, but it was not just that. Those three days were the days of big questions and intense soul-searching. By the end of it, she threw away the half-finished pack of Dunhills, burned the letter without reading one word and didn’t talk to anyone for a week – but most importantly, they were through. “It’s over, and nothing good will come out of this”, she had said over the phone to that once future scientist who was now standing in front of her. Wearing the corduroy jacket, behind the narrow beige desk filled with hands, rings, bracelets and drinks. In this Manhattan bar swamped by midnight people in artsy fedoras, ordering their Sangrias and Flirtinis. 

She felt a little overwhelmed as she drowned the cigarette end in the ashtray carefully prepared by the barman. By him.

“I feel it now”, she said. Screamed almost, so as to be heard.

“Excuse me, Madam?”

Was that an act? Was he only playing his part?

She squeezed his fingers but he started back.

“I feel that warmth”, she repeated. “I remember”.

“I’m sorry, Madam. That’s not what you feel”.

“Yeah?” she said. “And what do I feel?”

“It’s Manhattan. It’s all these bottles and ashtrays and cigarettes. It’s sweat. It’s hot in here at night”.

She pushed away the glass and replaced it with a frayed ten dollar note. A song began playing in the background, but it was too modern and she could not recognize it. There was no connection. Besides, she was eager to miss the encore. 

A drunk kid in black leather pants opened the door for her, and she stepped into the lush, forgetful noise of Manhattan.


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