OF MANHATTAN AND MEN by Laura Maidah
Last Monday, on my way past the whistling nose hairs of our falafel man and the clicking heels of anorexic housewives, I saw a stranger with a friendly face by the bus stop. His eyes smiled, crinkling his temples with warmth. He was tall, lean and dressed in slacks and a casual grey knit sweater. I had only a half-block walk past the usual Manhattan tourist types to my apartment. It was walking distance of both Rock Center and Central Park, a great spot and an expensive, rare find. Low ceilings, plaster walls, and cramped living. Midtown quiet was worth the price, I always reflected, quite a consolation prize every other month I had to pay rent. Its constituents were morbidly suicidal once you got to know them, but I liked my area, and unlike my neighbors and Nietzsche, I found suicide not so consoling in the midnights. I hadn’t thought much of such morbidity until recently, when the Greek man three floors below me who made me chicken lemon dolma once, hung himself.
I had no need to ride the bus. My car was parked by the LensCrafters, three paces away. But instead of stopping by the nearest Mid-Cuisine truck for eggplant smushy and red pickled beef as I had planned, I joined the stranger by the bench. I felt drawn to his open face and broad shoulders. I guessed he was around thirty, a perfect age to be on a perfect quiet weekday. It was quiet for Manhattan.
As I approached him, he nodded at me, his kind eyes black and flecked with bits of gold. I couldn’t even see his pupils. It was a little unsettling how he could maintain eye contact with a complete stranger and still have the coordination to draw a smoke and light it with one hand. It was an effortless, continual motion, stemming from his lower back and ending with a smooth flick of his lighter, a smoke screen from a magician’s fingertips.
His casual sophistication impressed me. I couldn’t help myself. I reapplied lip liner when he looked away. The mirror made me smile, pleased, but when the stranger glanced my way, I felt embarrassed, as if caught naked. Yet, it was shyness inspired by being looked at by someone who had the right to look. I wanted to hear him speak.
“Hey, guy. I’m Laura.” I made sure I hung on the first “L” of my name a little. I always felt it sounded prettier. “Do you live around here? I’m lost.” I pouted a little, knowing the effect of lowered eyelashes and coral lipstick was usually quite flattering.
“I actually don’t know the area that well. What are you looking for?” His voice held wooden upper class, a touch of Scottish blur, and coursing, deep merlot in every vowel. He wore Polo, a scent of a high city echelon that always excited me.
I couldn’t think of a place I could say I was looking for. I had no real need of a guide. I knew how to navigate the bulk of street traffic, when to use a cab, how to talk a ticket into a dinner for two, and where to get the best backrub. I knew not to cross Times Square unless I had to, for fear of being a tourist in my own city.
I had a list on my iPhone of which 5th Avenue stores had the best wedding dresses and which alleys to match with knock-off prototypes for a third of the price. My best friends lived within ten miles in every direction, and I could hear Jeremy deejay over the whining horns and screaming domestic happenings of the city. There were men I encountered on an evening stroll who were a little too old for me, and a little too gay for me. Then there was Anderson Cooper at night, playing across the street in the second condo to the left, too softly for anyone but my dog, Guardian, to hear. Upper and Midtown Manhattan were as much my accessories as my rose-tipped Kors watch.
“I’m looking for LensCrafters,” I managed, making certain not to waver in pitch too much. I hadn’t been this nervous on an introduction in a while. I hoped he didn’t notice the damned place was only a few cars’ length away from us.
“Well, I actually don’t know where that is. But we can look together if you want? I’m Justin, by the way. Nice to meet you, Laura.” His hand was warmer and drier than mine. I wanted to keep him in my grip, but I let him go with a quick handshake. It was a second of tragic brevity that made me swoon internally.
Justin was wearing a gold band on his wedding finger, which I hadn’t noticed until I looked down to shake his hand. I winced inwardly, straining an effort of a grin on my face.
“You know, I’m sorry,” Justin said. “My bus is here. I’m kind of busy today. In a rush, you know? How about you ask someone who has more time? You look very pretty, by the way. I’m sure you like what you see in any mirror.”
My jaw unhinged of its own accord, gaping as the stranger with the friendly face boarded his bus.
“Justin?” I followed him, wondering if I was having a bad hair day. Out of habit, I moistened my lips, fluffed my hair, and realized how I looked. Self-absorbed, quietly obsessed, and just like any girl I had ever judged. “Wait a sec.” I paid the grumpy driver and sat next to him. Metro-people had never seen a man quite as amiable-looking. A woman in a straw cap tipped her hat towards Justin, who winked.
“Justin,” I began. He kept smiling. It was unnerving how natural that was for him. “I don’t know why I’m here.”
“Laura. I’m sorry. I’m just not interested.”
“I don’t think I hit on you yet.” I wanted to punch his groin.
“I’m married, to a man who doesn’t think he’s worth me because of a pretty face.”
I had never been so insulted, or shocked, by a man’s sexuality.
I rode the bus until Broadway, marched furiously to Jeremy’s apartment, and we shared an unpretentious quart of Dreyer’s Triple-Fudge ice cream. Outside, golden children played in the rain, destined to rebel against conservatism by the time they reached adolescence. I could hear Guardian barking over Anderson Cooper’s raw homosexual magnetism. In the distance, a million crickets sang unappreciated as the proximate city folk only heard the sound of a coin falling miles away.