There are those who like to look for girls in the subways. Once I knew a girl, a Barcelonian, who was good at it. Prodigiously good. Oh, that Spanish swagger. She liked very much the challenge, she said. It is so like being on the stage, she said.
I am not so brave a girl. Blanche might say it is not bravery that is required but rather openness, a glasnost of the soul. A blossoming. Blanche and her poeticisms! I am never open, but there was a time, three years ago, when I did get lucky. I was in the subway and speeding toward a Halloween party. I am everlastingly bad at parties. Without fail, I become once more the child I used to be: mute, judgmental, desperate to hide behind the skirts of the one I love. Still, I wanted to drink, and not alone.
So I was on my way uptown. The subway car was rollickingly loud, overloaded with goblins and whores; flappers and rockers; schoolgirls, heroes, and ghouls. The revelers were drunk and exuberant. They wore short, preposterous skirts.
I was by myself and, defiantly, in a simple white dress. I never wore a costume for Halloween. A leprechaun twirled around a pole. Superman, disappointingly, staggered. I was feeling as lonely as a Benedictine at an orgy when I noticed a girl sitting catty-corner from me, reading, alone. Long fingers hid the book’s title from me. She sat very straight in a trench coat of a dark, peculiar green. Her legs were bare. Her close-cropped hair alchemized fluorescent light to gold. She laughed to herself and underlined something in her book.
Most of the drunkards disembarked at Christopher Street. The girl stayed, still laughing. I kept looking. I love looking. Beauty baffles me. That posture of hers. She appeared uncompromising and apart, like statuary. What was she reading?
We swung through tunnels, and I let my stop go by. More revelers got off. A disproportionate number of elderly couples got on. They were quietly well dressed: suits of gray, dun furs, pearls. They looked unaccustomed to the subway. They leaned into each other and peered at scraps of paper. “I think the next stop is for us, dear.” “My goodness, already?” “It is fast, isn’t it?” “Oh, here we are.” “Take my arm.” Funny, to envy the old. They got off at the stop for Lincoln Center. Operagoers, I thought. Of course. Aboveground the streets of Manhattan would be overrun.
By and by the car emptied. When the girl stood up, I wasn’t ready for it. Sitting with her for so long, I’d thought maybe, like me, she had nowhere special to go, and together we might carom around underground, fellow vagabonds, all night long. But, no, she was up and at the doors. I would have liked to be standing, too, able, as the doors opened, to step aside and intimate with a murmur: After you. But I was too late. So I did the next best thing: I followed her.
I kept pace from a distance. Despite the hordes on the platform, she was easy to see: a pair of bare, strong legs; a flash of green. I wondered if I had ever, to anyone, looked so memorable. As she passed a group of singers busking at the black gates of the subway — “She bid me take life easy,” they sang — she dropped a bill into their open guitar case. Was it the song? Was she just that bighearted? Was she, like me, new to the city, still feeling for those who asked for money? We came to the base of a steep staircase. There was an escalator, but she ignored it and ran up the stairs, lightly. She flew by all the plodding, earthbound walkers. I hurried to keep up.
A lamplit street. Merrymakers everywhere. She strode on, her trench coat flapping. I cut through the celebrating crowds. For a moment I lost her. Drunks, imposters, trying to be for one night something other than themselves. All. In. Our. Way. But then, that flash of outlaw green. I ran, feeling giddy and optimistic, like an adventurer.
She turned left onto a narrow, quieter street of stalwart brownstones and ailanthus trees. She stopped and about-faced, and I stood still. We looked at each other across the length of half a block. I wondered what she saw: A wooer at the ready? A slight girl in a white dress and cowboy boots? A small face cupped by blunt black hair? I heard the song of sirens far away.
“Do you,” she called, “like the way I walk?
Oh, I did. In the leisure of the days and years to come I would study the rhythm of her walk, deliberate over the language of her legs. We would be naked and in love and would do as we pleased. We would travel the breadth of the whole, the biddable world, and we would open ourselves to it: open like a door, like open sesame. We were open with Tibetan dissidents and Bajau sea nomads; open to nightclubs in Sinchon; open in Yanji, and open in Barcelona. Blanche was a travel writer and photographer. I quit my office job and picked up odd gigs teaching English so I could stay by her side.
At first it was fun. Blanche and I duetted in karaoke bars. We petted ratty orphan tigers and laughed at men who tried to pick us up. She seemed to think it perfectly natural, no big deal, that I would leave my life to be with her, so I pretended I thought so, too. On filthy trains she dozed, and I watched her, amazed: legs curled under like a mermaid’s tail, cheap rhodium bracelets staining her skin greenish gold. As we roved, I jotted letters to old friends. The letters became postcards, postcards became occasional e-mails, and finally I forgot to send any word at all.
I don’t know when I started worrying all the time. The thing was, Blanche needed me to keep her safe. In these teeming, starving cities where someone could have killed her for her boots alone, she lived free of fear. Though six years older, she was the naive one. The risks she took — they made me sick. She was all for hitchhiking, for example. She was careless with her things, flinging them anywhere. Worst of all, she habitually held her camera up to her face while crossing streets. “Blanche, Jesus,” I would say, yanking her back as a car screamed past, and she’d shrug me off and laugh. Then she would shoot another picture. She looked at everything. She looked at everyone. I looked after her. For three years I couldn’t sleep from the strain.
Then we were in Rajasthan, walking down a dusty sidewalk. For all of five seconds I paused at a food stand to buy us water. She crossed the street, and a rickshaw hit her. It split her open. The doctor said she needed a transfusion, and the new blood poisoned her. All night she shook as if she might break, as if her body were too small to hold her outsized soul. I squeezed myself around her, holding my girl in place while her fists flung out crazily, the knuckles globes of bone. In six languages she cursed, teeth chattering.
After she’d recovered, she was weaker. One morning she woke me up, her eyes bright. “What if we went back to New York,” she said, sitting on top of me. “I know how much you’ve been wanting to go back.”
“For how long?”
“For good,” she said with a half smile, and I thought, At last.
A year later I was sitting in our living room with no company but the flat tick of the clock, waiting for Blanche to come home. I watched the minute hand fall down the clock face, and swing up and around, and fall down the clock face, and swing up and around, and it was twelve, then one, then two, then three o’clock.
Blanche was on a fifth date with her first, and so far only, other girlfriend. An open relationship — that’s what we had. We’re-so-young, the-world’s-so-vast, monogamy’s-so-outdated-and-counterfeit. That was why, or so she said. “You should go out, too,” she’d told me before she left, slipping on a pair of peep-toe sling-backs — my peep-toe sling-backs. She strode to the refrigerator, pulled out a silver can of Red Bull, and snapped it open: a quick, efficient swig of caffeine, in case the night went long. “Meet someone new,” she called over her shoulder. “Get frisky.”
“But I don’t want to,” I said. Then I added, to sound less miserable, “Maybe next time.”
The joke so old it’s like a creation story: What do lesbians bring on their second date? A U-Haul. That wasn’t us, or at least not Blanche, and the pilgrim soul I’d loved first and foremost in her was a source of discord now. No one changes. I’ve learned that much.
“At least don’t wear my shoes tonight,” I said, regretting the words even as they rushed out, but what could I do? Those sling-backs would be her conspirators.
She tilted her head and looked at me fondly. The open refrigerator lit her bright, short, heroic hair. “My introvert,” she said. “My delicate lotus flower.”
“Blanche,” I said, “we’ve seen lotus flowers. Remember Beijing, the Summer Palace? They’re tough. And big. A lotus flower can be described in many ways, but it is not delicate.”
“My paradoxical lotus flower,” she said and tipped back another swig.
“Stop fucking patronizing me.”
She looked hurt. She looked hurt, her eyes wide with surprise. And, despite myself, I was sorry. She was killing me, fine, but here’s what else I knew: that when we slept, she cupped a hand around my head as if to protect me from bad dreams. Blanche in her tool belt, brandishing a power drill — oh. Once, she’d hitched a ride on a cargo ship to Panama, just because she wanted to.
I went to her and touched her arm. Its fine gold hairs. She wouldn’t look at me. “I didn’t mean that,” I said quietly.
“I know,” she said. She freed her feet from the sling-backs. Then she did a strange thing: she knelt in front of me, lifted my left foot, and gently slid it into the shoe. Again with the right foot. “All yours,” she said. Finally she looked up at me. She hugged my legs, and left for her date with another girl.