On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Although it’s close to Labor Day, there is no hint of fall in the air. No streaks of red in the trees, no breeze stirring the leaves. The temperature in these last days of August has been ferociously high, even for Manhattan. Every day dawns steamy, and by nighttime a haze of heat blocks out the moon. Summer will never end — this is what Abby is thinking on one of these sweltering August evenings, a Sunday, as she walks home from the Gourmet Fair grocery with Gideon, who owns the cafe across the street from her apartment and lives around the corner. This summer, she’s thinking, will go on for the rest of my life.
One of the consequences of this extraordinary heat (and of the fact that she is only a few weeks out of detox) is that Abby has hardly any appetite. Gideon, who knows nothing about her past — they met only a few minutes ago, when he recognized her on the checkout line — has been teasing Abby about the single, small paper bag she carried out; he’s holding two large, nearly overflowing bags of groceries. “So,” he says, “you’ve got two candy bars and one can of creamed corn? Or was it one bar and two corns?”
“Two bars,” she answers.
“You expecting company?”
Embarrassed, she says vaguely: “The heat.” She doesn’t tell this attractive neighbor of hers that she’s just come out of treatment, let alone that she’s been watching him from her window ever since she’s been home. His cafe, which opened while she was away, is painted a shimmery yellow, with silver tables and vases of orange lilies. Gideon treats even his most bad-tempered customers with genuine kindness, and each day he brings coffee to creepy Victor, who owns the antique shop next door and displays things like one-legged porcelain dolls and tattered butterfly nets in his window. On sunny mornings Victor and Gideon chat outside as they drink their coffee, and if Abby opens her window, she can hear Gideon respond soothingly to Victor’s tirades about his crazy ex-wife and delinquent children. “That’s a shame,” he’ll say, or, “It shouldn’t be like that.”
That’s the impression he makes from twenty yards away. Up close, as he and Abby walk down Broadway in the fading light, the flesh and blood of Gideon is overwhelming. Abby’s heart pounds as she takes in his dark, deep-set eyes; the scar on his cheek the size of a fingerprint; the gray in his sideburns she couldn’t see from across the street. (She guesses he’s in his late thirties, a few years older than she is.) She can even smell the spearmint chewing gum in his mouth. In her own mouth is the aftertaste of heroin, that inexplicable flavor of soot she always got after shooting up. It’s been close to two months: shouldn’t the drugs be out of her bloodstream by now? But her saliva seems to bear a permanent trace of ashes.
“I’ve got a bunch of extra apricots, if you’d like some,” Gideon says.
They have stopped at a crosswalk to wait for the light to change, and all around them people charge by: a group of teenage girls in shorts and stiletto heels, screeching and laughing; a heavily tattooed man walking a dozen German shepherds; two women on rollerblades cursing at a guy on a bicycle who nearly ran them over as he careened down the block at top speed. Abby usually doesn’t notice the commotion, because she’s charging along herself with head down: home to work, work to home. It occurs to her that this is the first time in years she’s walked down the street with another person.
Gideon continues: “I bought way too many. I’m on this kind of obsessive apricot-curry kick. And the fruit at the Gourmet Fair is always so fresh. Every time I go in, I get carried away.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Abby hears herself say. She moves the hand holding the paper bag a little behind her; maybe he’s forgotten its slightness. In fact this was the first time she’s been to the Gourmet Fair. She prefers the more straightforward graham crackers and SpaghettiOs of her neighborhood grocery, but tonight it was closed, yellow tape barricading the entranceway, a notice from the health inspector tacked to the door. The Gourmet Fair is the sort of place she tends to shy away from, where the shelves are stocked with products that sound mysterious and a little frightening: shark’s-fin cakes and lemon-grass hearts and guanábana juice.
As it turned out, she’d been right to stay away. All that lavish color and wealth of scents and hum of affectionate chatter — the young couple discussing jambalaya recipes, the teenage boy and his mother joking about who made the better pesto — only reminded her of what a disappointment her body has been to her. Even now, three months since that day in May when she began to recognize that it had failed her and would no longer process heroin, she is flooded with grief so acute she nearly staggers. Such an unexpected betrayal. For so many years her body welcomed heroin, veins prominent, heart drumming as she grazed the bottom of a spoon with a lighter. But suddenly none of it made any difference: the needle eased in gently or jammed in with force; the delicate veins in her ankle or the ropy ones in her groin; two bags or twelve bags — she could no longer get high. One night, one hour, of peace was all she wanted, but instead she lay endlessly awake, nose running and legs aching; blisters on the roof of her mouth and mud-colored bruises on the backs of her legs; abscesses up and down her arms, as red and angry as snakebites. She still has traces of them on the insides of her elbows, and even in this August heat she is wearing long sleeves.
“It sounds sort of repulsive when you say it out loud,” Gideon says, and for an excruciating moment Abby fears she has unconsciously voiced her thoughts. But then he says, “ ‘Apricot curry.’ Apricots and curry powder! It sounds like . . . cantaloupe and cayenne pepper, doesn’t it? Strawberries and Tabasco sauce. But I swear, it’s really great.”
The light says walk, and very lightly he touches her back as they start across the street. His touch sends a flash of heat down her spine that, combined with the lingering anxiety over the misconstrued repulsive, makes her feel as if she were running a fever.
“Curry in this weather?” Abby asks.
“When it’s this hot out, you’re supposed to eat the spiciest foods you can stand,” he says. “You sort of trick your body into thinking it’s even hotter than it is, so then you sweat more, and the more you sweat, the more you . . .” — a quick glance in her direction — “um, cool down.” He clears his throat. “But you probably already knew that.”
She didn’t, but, scared of what she might blurt out if she tries to speak, she nods her head.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m always telling people something as if it’s this incredible, exotic piece of information, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I learned that in second grade.’ ” He clears his throat again and says, bewilderingly, “I think I’d better stop talking for a little while.”
Can she be making him nervous? The idea is so absurd, so impossible — her, with her sweat-soaked (long-sleeved) shirt and her bloodshot eyes, making him nervous — that she flushes. A year or even six months ago, when her body was still on her side and her eyes still bright, she might have held some appeal for him. Apricot curry? she might have said. Sounds pretty good. I bet you’re an amazing cook. Let’s go to my apartment and make some. She was like that when high, heroin thrumming like adrenaline through her veins. Lively. Unafraid. Free.
They have reached the other side of the street, and this block is even louder than the one before. Salsa music streams from the open windows of a parked Cadillac with several young men inside. Two women at a newsstand are taking turns reading the tabloid headlines to each other, hollering over the music: “ ‘Starving Dieter Eats Own Foot’!” “ ‘Drunk Swallows Bowling Ball’!” A man and a woman stroll by holding hands while they each talk on a cellphone. “Can you hear me now?” the man shouts into his phone. “Can you hear me now?” the woman shouts back, and they double over with laughter. In this whole city, Abby imagines, the only silent, lifeless pocket of air is the one between her and Gideon. And she is suddenly furious, nearly shaking with rage. Why did he have to waylay her at the Gourmet Fair? Why this wordless snail’s pace down Broadway? She’d have been fine by herself, in her usual heedless rush to her apartment. She’d have gone upstairs, opened her windows to relieve the mugginess that her ancient air conditioner is too feeble to dispel, eaten a can of creamed corn and a candy bar, flipped through the TV channels (avoiding shows with those terrifying laugh tracks that start to sound like anguished howls if you listen too long), and shut off the light before she undressed for bed, so as not to have to look at her dead-white skin, her knobby bones.
OK, so: maybe not fine, but at least a desolation that she’s used to. Surely noticing all this happy clamor will only make the evening blacker and heavier by comparison.
Some combination of anger and fear propels her to say, “Apricots have cyanide in them, don’t they?” A recollection from an old detective novel.
It comes out sounding somewhat reproachful, which is how she meant it, but Gideon turns to her with a smile and exclaims, “They do!” His eyes seem to shine with — what? Gratitude? Relief? As if he doesn’t want to take this silence home with him either. “I mean, the pits do,” he says, “but you’d have to eat around sixty for there to be a problem.”
Without thinking, Abby says, “Imagine your insides, like some weird enchanted forest.” And then she blushes, because of course this makes no sense.
“Exactly,” Gideon says. “Sixty apricot trees, growing out of your intestines.” He laughs, and she thinks again how genuinely kind he is, and again wishes he hadn’t approached her tonight. This small dose of kindness, like the street noise, will only make it worse for her later, when she is alone. Kindness, she knows, is even more treacherous than heroin: the ruthless cravings felt in its (inevitable, in her experience) absence.
“There actually are people who’ll eat that many,” he says, “or there were. I don’t know if it still goes on. But a while back there were a couple of doctors claiming apricot pits could cure cancer — some healing enzyme in the pits that supposedly got released when it came into contact with cancer cells. People were eating them by the hundreds.” He glances at the shopping bags he’s carrying. “Hard to believe.”
But for Abby it isn’t. Once she finally understood that heroin wasn’t going to work for her anymore, she ingested any drug she could get her hands on: horse tranquilizers bought from a teenager outside a dance club; methadone an old man in a wheelchair had sipped at a clinic, then spit back into a cup; morphine her dealer swore had been smuggled straight out of (yes) a cancer unit. She can quite easily picture desperate people surrounded by apricots, swallowing not just the pits but the pulp, too, and the skin, filling their mouths until the juices run down their necks, as if at some horrible pie-eating contest.
“What do you think happened to all those people?” she asks, although she can already guess the answer.
“I guess they’re mostly dead. The cancer itself, or else — you know — all that cyanide.”
A few yards away a bus emits an acrid blast of exhaust as it pulls from its stop. Abby accidentally breathes it in, and a wave of dizziness overtakes her. She has to stop and lean against a lamppost to steady herself.
“Hey, are you all right?” Gideon asks, his eyes, bronze-brown in the lamplight, filled with concern.
It is so tempting to push up her sleeves and show him her scars; to describe the ache in her bones, her piercing headaches. She thinks about the chalkboard menu in his cafe’s window, the pictures he draws every morning next to the day’s specials: split pea soup and two halves of a green pea waving goodbye to each other as they dive into a cast-iron pot; linguini with smoked salmon and a fish with a tiny blue eye surrounded by silver lines that are meant to be scales but look more like tears.
“How stupid people can be,” she says. “What they’ll do to their bodies.”
“Well, I suppose they were just hoping for the best.” He takes her paper bag from her hand. “Come on. Let’s get you home. We’re almost there.”
As they turn off Broadway onto Abby’s street, she has a full view of her apartment building: the barbed wire her eccentric landlord painted green — to resemble ivy — draped across the facade; the grimy brick and dusty windows with curtains pulled tight. There is her bedroom window, and for a moment she could swear she sees herself behind it, sweating in the humidity, flipping through the TV channels.
She has stopped walking, and Gideon has, too, but he isn’t looking at her building; he’s staring into the window of Victor’s antique store, next to his cafe. In the distance Abby can hear traffic and sirens and dogs barking, but on this side street it’s quiet.
“Look,” Gideon says, pointing.
In the window all she sees is the usual junk: broken umbrellas; rusty dental equipment; a handful of pipe cleaners twisted into flower shapes, propped in a filthy vase made of cheap carnival glass. Is it these Gideon is pointing to?
“Aren’t they kind of beautiful?” he asks, and something about the way he stares at the pipe-cleaner flowers reminds her of the girl she saw gazing into a crate of red peppers at the Gourmet Fair as her father explained photosynthesis. “They turn sunshine into sugar?” she marveled.
Gideon inhales deeply, as if trying to catch the flowers’ perfume through the glass. “What kind do you think they are?” he asks, smiling.
Abby risks a sniff. “Lilies?” she says, and as Gideon turns to look at her — and again she notes the gray in his sideburns, and now the lines around his eyes, too — it occurs to her that everyone’s body lets them down sooner or later, in one way or another. She is not alone in this.
(And, as Gideon will later say, “Really, didn’t your body save you?”)
But none of these thoughts are spoken aloud, not yet. What she says is “They are kind of beautiful,” and Gideon and Abby stand at the window, looking at the pipe-cleaner flowers, as graceful in their etched-glass vase as fully living things.