Her friends leave her with the liquor bill. They’re off to catch a play she has already seen and did not like. They didn’t want to hear her review. (Sentimental claptrap.) In the farthest corner of the deserted patio of this SoHo bar, she tucks her credit card in her pocketbook, which she drops in her purse. She finishes her drink, tabulates her share of the bill. Her friends owe her seventy-seven dollars and change. She rounds off the number to seventy-eight. Sarah prefers even numbers.
The big man appears out of nowhere and nothing, as if the stone that makes up the patio floor suddenly rises, a boulder of a man, drunk, leering. He lunges forward to manacle Sarah’s wrist, yank her from the table and into his arms, his breath a torch, his free hand at the small of her back pressing her body close, knocking the breath out of her before she can talk or scream.
“You look like just what I need,” says the boulder. He squeezes her against him. “You want a little of it, dontcha?”
Fear makes it impossible to decide on the right words. Stay calm, she reminds herself, talk your way out of this. Before she can speak, another man steps in, a man of normal human dimensions, wedging his two hands and then his body between the big man and Sarah, using his ten fingers to free her wrist. She backs up against the brick wall of the neighboring building. There is no clear escape route.
“You’re loaded,” the second man tells the boulder. “You’re about to make a big mistake. You don’t want to do this.”
The brute switches his malevolent attention from her to him. The next few seconds pass so slowly she actually hears time trudging along, a shuffling sound—hard soles against grit.
With a meaty finger, the big man stabs the other man’s sternum. The smaller man’s head knocks into hers; his backside presses against her torso, and her drink is nudged off the table. Glass shatters on the stone deck. The big man turns his head to witness the wet shards.
“All right, then, fuck,” says the big man softly, wagging his immense head. “We’re making a mess.” He pivots, takes one awkward step, stumbles, rights himself, vanishes inside the bar.
“You okay?” the man asks.
She nods, takes a moment, then says, “I think maybe I owe you a drink.”
“I could use one,” he replies. Sweat pimples his temple like a game of connect-the-dots.
This is how Sarah and Alexander meet.
They drink at the bar. She buys him an amber ale and then another. They are high on perceived danger, tipsy before drinking together. At ten p.m., they decide they’re hungry again and hunt down pita, hummus, falafel. She runs her finger over his top lip to catch a drop of errant hummus, and she is ready to take him home. But he asks if she will meet him the next night for dinner. Which means it takes another twenty-four hours for them to become lovers.
Weeks pass. One hot day in early June, Sarah comes to Alexander’s office at five, which is their custom. She works for a literary agent, and the office usually closes at four. He works in one of the cast-iron buildings, writing copy for a PR firm.
He takes her hand and leads her to the window. They are on the fifth floor, and the view includes a sliver of the midtown skyline, but also, across the street below, the stone patio of the bar where they met.
“What are we looking for?” she asks.
“Guess who came to visit? That big guy.”
“From the night we met?”
Alexander nods. “I looked from the computer screen and he was just there. Scared me,” he says. “The man knows how to loom. He only left a minute ago.”
“What was he doing here?” Her heart, she realizes, is lively with alarm. But there is no sign of the big man on the street.
“He said, You remember me?” Alex makes his voice thick to imitate the big man. He’s being funny. “He came to apologize. Said he’s making amends. He found me through the bartender.” He flicks a finger at the stone patio across the street. “His name is Max Pessarra and he’s trying now to be a good man.”
“A twelve-step thing?”
“I told him he ought to apologize to you, not me, but I decided I shouldn’t give him your name.”
She nods. “I don’t want that man looking for me.” She puts her arms around Alexander, charmed by the story or the way he conveyed it.
They go to the stone patio to drink, laugh, touch hands beneath the table. But that night, in the dark of three a.m., lying beside the sleeping Alex in her Murphy bed, she wonders whether it wasn’t all planned.
She imagines that Alex and the big man are friends. They invent a scenario for Alexander to rescue her—a corny scenario that gets overplayed and turns ugly. But it is successful nonetheless. And now that she and Alexander have become a couple, Alex must rehabilitate his pal.
In the morning, she reveals her conspiracy theory to the woman across the hall, who says, “I wish someone would go to that much trouble to meet me.”
Sarah laughs, but she can’t dismiss the idea. Is she thinking too much of herself? Is her worry actually vanity? She’s attractive enough, but not the type of woman men connive to meet.
Still, what if?
And if Alex is not the man who stood up for her, who is he?
She goes to a great deal of trouble to find out. She sets up another situation to see if he will step in against a pair of men, guys she used to work with when she first moved to the city, bad actors but convincing enough, one taking advantage of the charade to grab her ass.
“What goes here?” Alexander asks, insinuating himself among them, his body once again shielding hers. He speaks calmly but firmly, removing his jacket in case it comes to fists, that same line: “You don’t want to do this.”
Except for the grope, she is pleased by the event, but the pleasure doesn’t last. What if he is merely forced now to be that kind of man with her? Isn’t such behavior less an expression of character than the commitment to a persona?
Sarah’s parents were a poor match, and she does not want to replicate their error. Her mother was a small-time model, wearing a department store’s latest fashion for the weekly newspaper insert, clerking in kitchen appliances the remainder of the time. Her future husband—Sarah’s father—appeared at the store to buy a refrigerator for his fraternity. She liked something about him immediately. “Maybe just that he was, you know, what we called classy,” she would one day tell Sarah. “All that really means—I don’t know how to put it. How they dressed and carried themselves, you could tell they were raised to take money for granted.”
Sarah’s father was impressed by the girl’s knowledge of the merchandise, but paid no attention to her insert-worthy body, her comic quickness, the symmetrical contours of her face. He bought a top-freezer Amana, agreed to the delivery date, and waved to her with his pointer finger as he left the store.
Later that month, he returned with a friend—another boy from the fraternity—to buy a toaster. He refused other salespeople, waiting until she was free.
“This girl knows her stuff,” he told his fraternity brother.
And it was that boy who asked her to a party at the frat house. “He was the first man who could see I was something more than just a pretty face,” she told Sarah, “but I wanted your father.”
Sarah’s father was slow to notice even that much, but eventually he came around. “I musta been blind,” he liked to say, affecting the accent of Sarah’s family, “but my eyes was opened.” They eloped within a month of their first kiss. Children followed. The in-laws on either side sneered at the match, but they stuck it out, even though the marriage required a lot of pretending. After Sarah’s little sister left for college, they divorced. “I’m starting to love him more now,” her mother admitted. “As long as I don’t have to look at that smug face of his every morning, he seems okay.”
Here’s what Sarah believes: willful blindness is frequently mistaken for love, and few marriages based on blindness persevere. Given this, she reasons that there could not have been a worse way for her to meet Alex.
According to an Internet service that costs her three dollars and fifty cents, there is only one Maxwell Pessarra in the greater New York area. He lives in Queens. She takes the E train, transfers to a bus, walks over one avenue and down three blocks. She pauses before the address, a small house with a concrete block fence. The blocks are narrow and square with a star pattern in the center. A black blemish along the top of the fence suggests that Max Pessarra smokes but not in the house. His butts litter the walk. She suspects that he lives with his parents. The house and yard, along with what she can see of the curtains—every detail has the look of her parents’ generation. She does not go to the door. What if he’s drunk again? Why didn’t she think to worry about that?
She heads back for the bus stop, and there he is, the big man, just up the street, approaching with his head lowered: jeans, a short-sleeve white shirt, a pale blue tie in one hand, whose tongue almost reaches the sidewalk. He is not the giant she remembers, but sufficiently wide and muscled. He does not look like a man who has decided to make amends. Nevertheless, she summons the courage to speak to him.
“Don’t I know you?” she asks.
He pauses, examines her greedily, as if she were a package under the tree.
“I’d like to know you,” he says. After only a moment, his expression darkens. “I used to drink. Maybe I knew you then. I hope that’s not it. Kind of a scary thing, hear what I’m saying? Having this past like a dragon’s tail that’ll still swing around to slap my face.”
“You just look familiar,” she maintains, repeating dragon’s tail in her mind. She wants to remember it. “Are you a friend of Alexander Jenkins?”
The big man shrugs his big shoulders, which then droop. “Yeah, I know that guy. Met him anyway. He’s a good listener.”
Is he? Has she failed to notice this? While she wonders, the big man stomps past her.
“Bye,” she says, but it comes out a whisper and he only grunts in reply.
A handful of months pass, and she is pregnant. It isn’t exactly a planned pregnancy, but it isn’t exactly a surprise. They practiced a thrilling carelessness in bed. They tempted fate.
Alexander goes with her to her childhood home in Bulls Head, meeting her mother and sister, who sit on either side of him on the gray couch. Their quick, familiar, appraising chatter has him whipping his head from side to side, his frozen phony smile like a mask. Tulip, her mother’s neurotic Pekinese, frantically bites and paws at his shoestrings.
Sarah steps in to pull Alex away. “I want to show him my old room,” she tells her mom. Her sister winks approvingly.
“Thank you,” he says to her. “You saved me.”
In an instant she understands that what passes for courage in one person may be nothing special to another, which may mean that Alexander is not brave, merely a man who thinks nothing of physical encounters. She has given him credit for having the courage she would have to muster.
Doesn’t that mean he deserves no credit?
Her aging and estranged father arrives from Brooklyn just in time for dinner. “I’ve always had good timing,” he says. He apologetically puts off meeting Alexander to run to the bathroom.
“I told him he could bring his new wife,” Sarah’s mother announces, “but I guess he’s too embarrassed about that twit.”
“Or she knows you two mess around when he visits,” says Sarah’s sister.
Seated at the head of the dinner table, her father addresses a series of questions to Alexander—work, parents, income, intentions. Then he warns, “You better take your vitamins if you’re going to be with this one.” He indicates Sarah with a chicken leg. “She’s not one to make things easy.”
“I guess I need trouble, then,” Alex says. “Whatever it is she’s like, it’s what I need.”
“If you say so.” Her father rocks his head in resignation. “Never say you weren’t warned.”
It’s what everyone needs, Sarah thinks, the right kind of irritation to bring out the necessary scratch. She reaches under the table to squeeze Alexander’s hand.
All evening she is weightless with affection for him. What, after all, is love if not the right kind of blindness? She simply has to quit asking questions. She simply has to shut her eyes. She must believe without interrogating her faith.
After the others go to bed, she and Alexander settle on the gray couch, the room lit now by nothing but the muted television, and she agrees to marry him. They kiss in the digital light, which shifts and changes like the machinations of thought.
From this point forward, time gathers momentum, hurtling along to arrive at a particular night in September—one week before the wedding, three weeks before her miscarriage. In the aftermath of sex, Alexander’s hand on her expanding belly, he says he has a confession to make.
She interrupts him. “Is this about how we met?”
He nods. His lips make a nibbling motion—one of several habits that are beginning to annoy her.
“You already knew that big guy,” she says. “It was all an act.” She smiles as she says it, but she is trembling as well.
“I wish,” he says. “It’s worse than that. Way worse.”
What could be worse? She can think of nothing.
“I pissed myself,” he says. “Just a tiny bit. I was so scared. I was afraid he would break my nose and I’d be ugly, and then you’d never want anything to do with me.”
“You were scared?”
“Scared to death, but that’s not what I was going to tell you.” He looks slightly past her to a spot just above her, as if something is circling her head. “I’d been following you. I saw you on the street, and then you went into my favorite bar, so . . . It seemed like kismet, I guess. That’s my confession.” He offers an embarrassed shrug, drops his eyes to hers. “You were just so beautiful.”
Beauty, blindness, courage, kindness, luck: Sarah knows more and understands less, but she takes his hand and lets the rest of it go.